August heat still blazes but school is quickly approaching. Time to stock up on number 2 pencils, cram summer reading assignments, and wave goodbye to camp. Although the freedom of summer comes to an end, a fresh school year can be exciting for students with the anticipation of new friends and activities. But for some this time is overcome with frayed nerves.
Apprehension about an upcoming semester is natural. I felt the butterflies in my own stomach while exploring a new high school and driving to my first college course. Sufferers of back-to-school anxiety, however, get more than butterflies. They suffer obsessive and intrusive thoughts which sometimes lead to panic attacks. What might be thrill for others, these students experience as dread.
The triggers vary with age. For example young children can fear separation from parents while older students in middle/high school and college might worry about testing and workload. The signs and symptoms vary too. They range from crying and tantrums for the young to skipping class and missing assignments for older students. Typical anxiety and panic symptoms are often present.
Though peculiarly specific, back-to-school anxiety is a real thing. Not considered a “formal psychiatric diagnosis,” it does exist as the outcome of underlying mental illness – commonly but not limited to separation anxiety, panic disorder, and social phobia. Legitimate psychologists and psychiatrists address it in innumerable articles and interviews easily found with a google search. Plain old school-centric anxiety is problematic already so anxiety about returning to classes isn’t surprising. “School refusal” is a related condition where, from a number of stressors, a child refuses to go to school or stay there. This could be at any time but the back-to-school version predicts real trouble if symptoms persist. One study found that 45% of school refusal cases never finished high school.
When I wanted to play “hooky” I would occasionally visit the school nurse with a fabricated stomachache or headache. It wasn’t just me. A lot of kids did it infrequently but those with back-to-school anxiety can make it a habit. What may be important to note is some symptoms of back-to-school anxiety or and school refusal actually manifest physically. The same is true for anxiety itself. The gut and brain are closely linked meaning that mental stress could result in nausea or bowel irregularity. Other real symptoms include headaches, tremors, and insomnia. When severe physical effects take their toll on a child the only safe route is to see a medical professional.
It’s important to remember: not just the youngsters and college folk deal with back-to-school anxiety. Parents can be affected as well but children read cues from adults; being relaxed goes a long way towards easing a child’s mind. In this case getting treated is necessary to be able to help one’s kids.
Thankfully there are great tips online about helping children conquer back-to-school anxiety. A lot of them use ERP, or exposure response prevention. ERP is a therapeutic treatment which involves exposing an anxiety sufferer to what they fear and preventing a distressed reaction. Doing this over time will desensitize anxiety triggers for a sufferer. Some doctors suggest driving to school several times at least a week before class, and practicing pick up/drop off routines. Even the daily regimen is good to get used to – waking up at a certain time, getting ready, etc. Another factor is communication. It may be less effective to downplay a student’s fears and more useful to acknowledge their concerns as valid and examine constructive solutions.
The desire to stay home is something many of us have felt. But if it gets overwhelming and causes abnormal behavior, professional help is the best course of action.
Note: For assistance with anxiety or any other behavioral health issues, schedule an appointment with BregmanMD.
Fremont, Wanda P. (2003) School Refusal In Children and Adolescents. American Family Physician. 68(8), 1555-1561. https://www.aafp.org/afp/2003/1015/p1555.html
Perdomo, Andrea. (2018, August 8) Experts Share Tips for Coping With Back to School Anxiety. WLRN. http://www.wlrn.org/post/experts-share-tips-coping-back-school-anxiety
Reilly, Katie. (2018, March 19) Record Numbers of College Students Are Seeking Treatment for Depression and Anxiety – But Schools Can’t Keep Up. Time. http://time.com/5190291/anxiety-depression-college-university-students/