Managing the Stress of a New School Year

As we move from the lazy, hazy days of summer to the hectic, jam-packed days of a new school year, I thought it might be helpful to review some ways to manage the inevitable stress that comes with this transition. Stress is a normal physical response to events that make us feel threatened or upset our balance in some way. Feeling like we have too few hours in the day to do the things we are supposed to do, or wishing we could be two places at once, as we move into homework, carpools, and after-school activities, can certainly feel threatening or upsetting to our balance.  

Stress can affect the mind, body, and behavior in many ways and everyone experiences stress differently. We can react to stress with a “fight” response by being overly emotional, with a “flight” response by shutting down or pulling away, or with a “freeze” response by becoming paralyzed. Signs and symptoms of stress overload can include cognitive, physical, emotional and/or behavioral symptoms.  Cognitive symptoms include an inability to concentrate, poor judgment, seeing only the negative, and/or constant worrying, physical symptoms include aches and pains, nausea, dizziness, and/or frequent colds, emotional symptoms include irritability or short temper, agitation, feeling overwhelmed, or general unhappiness, and behavioral symptoms include eating more or less, sleeping too much or too little, and/or using alcohol, cigarettes, or drugs to relax. 

Our ability to tolerate stress depends on many factors, including the quality of our relationships, our general outlook on life, our emotional intelligence, and our genetics. The following variables can influence our abilities to tolerate stress:

Support network: a strong network of supportive friends and family can be a buffer against life’s stressors, while feeling isolated can make us feel more vulnerable to stress.

Sense of control: if we have confidence in our ability to persevere through challenges it may be easier to take stress in stride, while feeling out of control reduces our tolerance for stress.

Attitude and outlook: optimistic people are often more stress-hardy. They tend to embrace challenges, have a strong sense of humor, and accept that change is a part of life.

Ability to deal with emotions: we are more vulnerable to stress if we don’t have the capacity to calm and soothe ourselves when we’re feeling sad, angry, or overwhelmed.

Knowledge and preparation: the more we know about a stress situation the easier it may be to cope. It is helpful to have realistic expectations.

In addition to maximizing these variables in order to become more “stress hardy”, stress management involves changing the stressful situation when we can, changing our reaction when we can’t, taking care of ourselves, and making time for rest and relaxation.  An important part of stress management is also learning how to differentiate what we can and cannot control. When we are stressed by something we can control, then we want to problem solve; when we are stressed by something we cannot control, then we want to ‘let it go’. We can learn to ‘let go’ by practicing mindfulness meditation, yoga, slow deep breathing, and visual imagery techniques. 

Stress is an inevitable part of life and learning to better manage stress is important for our physical and mental health. Times of transition, such as moving from summer to a new school year, can be especially stressful. While we cannot eliminate stress, we can learn how to have a different relationship to this kind of stress, which will benefit us in a myriad of ways.

Marcia Kaufman, Ph.D.
Licensed Clinical Psychologist