Every year during the last few weeks of summer, I’m hit with a series of unsettling school-related anxiety dreams. The most notable one features me having a full-blown panic attack when I discover that I somehow never actually attended my math class and, as a result, won’t be able to graduate college.
Despite the fact that I never once played hooky, did in fact graduate and — oh, yeah — haven’t set foot in a classroom in more than four years, I still struggle with lingering back-to-school stress and melancholy, both when I’m asleep and awake.
According to Dr. Josh Klapow, clinical psychologist and co-host of the radio show “The Web,” it’s normal to experience some degree of back-to-school anxiety, regardless of how long it’s been since you were a student.
After all, school doesn’t just account for a large portion of our lives, it takes place during some of our most impressionable years, Klapow said.
“Any environment that we spend eight or more hours a day in from ages 5 to 18 (at least) is, in many ways, going to define who we are, what we think [and] how we feel,” he explained.
It makes sense, then, that our most salient memories from school often come rushing back to us at the start of a new school year, Klapow said. These memories — good, bad and otherwise — can bring us back to a specific emotional state, be it anxiety, nostalgia, dread, sadness or a general feeling of being overwhelmed.
The time of year itself also plays a role in dictating your mixed bag of back-to-school emotions. According to Klapow, the transition from summer to fall can be a stressful time for many people.
“Summer is about nostalgia and represents for so many of us a time when things were much more carefree,” he explained. The start of school “signals a time to go back to work. It signals that time is passing us. Kids are getting older, life picks back up.”
Parents may be particularly susceptible to back-to-school anxiety. “Children are a powerful mirror and portal into our own childhood memories,” Klapow said. As such, when you have a child in school, Klapow explained, you’re automatically grappling with your role as a parent in your child’s school experiences, on top of confronting your own memories and emotions associated with school.
Many parents have a difficult time distinguishing between these two experiences and may inadvertently project their own fears and worries onto their kids.
“I see it all the time,” Klapow said. “The parents who push their kids towards sports because sports were great for them. The parents who push their kids to dress stylish for fear their child might be teased (because they were teased). The parents who want their child to study a certain subject because they struggled or excelled.”
If you’re a parent helping your child navigate school, Klapow said it’s crucial to recognize that “the strong feelings you are having are probably more driven by your own experiences than what your child is about to experience.”
Regardless of how your back-to-school emotions manifest, though, and whether you’re a parent or child-free adult, there are practical actions you can take to help combat the anxiety you might feel this time of year.
1. Give yourself permission to grieve
The transition from summer to fall often brings with it a sense of loss, Klapow said. As you move from the slow, relaxed pace of summer to the quicker pace of fall, you might also be saying goodbye to nearby friends and family, a more flexible schedule, vacation days, warm weather and extra time for yourself.
These losses can quickly add up and contribute to an overall feeling of sadness or stress, but it’s important to remind yourself that these feelings are temporary. “This is [just] the process of nostalgia and transition,” Klapow said. “It will pass as fall kicks in and we adapt to the new schedule.” Until then, give yourself time to process your feelings.
2. Check in with yourself
If you’re a parent dealing with severe back-to-school blues or anxiety, Klapow recommended checking in with yourself on a regular basis to ask the hard questions: Why are you feeling stressed? Why are you concerned about your child’s experience at school? Does this bring up memories for you?
Be honest with yourself and acknowledge the areas where you may be conflating your own experiences with those of your child’s. “I know this as a psychologist and a parent [who is moving] my child [to college] hundreds of miles from our home,” Klapow said. “It helps to remind myself that my child is his own person. ... And that helps me be a better parent and not project my childhood experiences on him.“
That said, the start of school can be a hectic time for parents. If you’re struggling, consider talking to a mental health professional, Klapow said.
3. Practice relaxation techniques
A few simple but effective relaxation strategies go a long way in helping you navigate back-to-school anxiety. Try to carve out at least five to 10 minutes a day to meditate, or, if you have a hard time sitting still, find another activity that relaxes you: take a walk, read a book or cook yourself a healthy meal. “Anything to help you reduce your physiological response to the uptick is critical,” Klapow said.
If you have a moment when you feel overwhelmed, angry or hyper-stressed, stop what you’re doing and take a few deep breaths. As you breathe out, remind yourself that you’re responsible for your own emotions. As Klapow said, you can’t control everything in your environment, but you can often control your responses to the situations you’re in.