Now that September is in full swing, most kids and young adults are back in the classroom, meaning that millions of working parents are trying to help their kids navigate a host of academic stress. And parents and nonparents alike are staring their own educational gremlins in the face, too, returning to the classroom themselves in the quest for self-development and career growth.
"While some stress is normal, when not managed effectively, excessive stress can impact productivity and performance, affect your physical and emotional health, and negatively impact your relationships and family life," says therapist Tanya Chesla, LMSW.
Clinical psychologist Dr. Mary Beth Cull adds that dealing with great stress can influence all other areas of your life. People can be much less present for those areas than they ordinarily would be.
"However, by managing stress effectively," says Chesla, "there is a real opportunity to not only balance your activities, but also to create a family that thrives when taking on new challenges."
Plus, Chesla says, kids can benefit from watching parents managing multiple priorities while staying well. Healthy examples can reinforce the lessons you want to teach.
What to watch for as you head back to class
Cull and Chesla both agree that anxiety and depression are the most common mental health issues they see, and both of those issues can get worse when you pile on the stress of going back to school.
But Cull cautions that stress and transition can bring any of our unique vulnerabilities to the surface, be that substance abuse, emotional eating or other issues. So it's important to recognize that the struggle one person experiences as classes roll isn't necessarily going to look like someone else's, and appropriate support can be very different, too.
Focusing on the most common issues of anxiety and depression, Chesla says there a few key factors that can spell trouble:
- Lack of a support system
- Neglecting self-care
- Inability to switch off and set boundaries
- Imposter syndrome
Cull adds that transitions are difficult largely because they hold so much uncertainty--most people tend to prefer the sense that they know what's coming next. Added responsibilities have an impact, too. And often what happens is that, rather than acknowledging and accepting their swirling feelings and uncertainties, people double down on go-to coping strategies even when those strategies don't work. They often get self-critical and blame themselves to the detriment of their self-esteem, erroneously thinking their negative self-talk somehow will motivate them to keep working and trying hard.
Chesla asserts that other symptoms can include
- Increased irritability, anger and frustration
- Not sleeping
- Decline in work and/or school performance
- Not feeling interested in what you used to be interested in
- Reduced social engagement with friends/family
- Poor concentration
- Excessive worry
How to keep back-to-school stress low
No matter how your particular problem might manifest, Cull and Chesla say that self-awareness is key to staying in control and getting back on track. That self-awareness, Chesla asserts, lets you compare to your normal baseline.
"Build time into each day, even just a few moments, to ask yourself how you're feeling, or if you notice any changes in your behavior," says Cull. "[...I] suggest people try to be compassionate and understanding with themselves, to remember that transitions and extra responsibilities can take a toll and take time to adjust to."
Once you've checked in with yourself, make a conscious decision to spend time and energy on whatever activities rejuvenate you. Decompress and give yourself some time to develop the effective coping skills--e.g., self-care like exercise, communication, planning and boundary setting--you need.
Through this process, reconnect with the "why" or meaning behind your choices. Reevaluate, for example, what you want from taking your new class or how helping your kids with school activities will propel them.
"When we are connected to the meaning behind our choices, and we feel like we have agency over our choices and schedules, it is empowering," says Cull. "This always serves to improve the way we feel about ourselves and our relationships, as well as our motivation."
But remember--you don't have to navigate alone. A good therapist can help you sort out what's happening and build some strategies for success. And importantly, both schools and companies can help people address back-to-school or other stress. To start, they should understand that people going back to school have accumulated additional responsibilities. Then, based on that understanding, they can provide support such as flexibility around schedules and needs, all while promoting an accepting, self-compassionate culture.
"When we are supported by our environments [and we] take good care of ourselves," says Cull, "enhancing one area of our lives actually serves to improve and add meaning to all the others."