Back to School Anxieties

Back to School Anxiety, Integrated Behavioral Health Psychological Services, Kalamazoo, MI

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Are you in the I’m ready for “Back to school” or “No, summer just got started!” camp?  Here is an idea for you, try the “be in today and let tomorrow take care of itself” camp.  Of course, you need to plan for your classroom if you are a teacher.  Parents need school supplies, clothes, getting the kids to bed earlier, or the trip back to college.  Do you spend most of today thinking about tomorrow and the next day?  I know, you think everything will fall apart if you don’t plan.  I do, too.  There is a fine line between planning and worrying

Most people spend the majority of their thoughts on the past and the future.  For example, parents have been fretting about getting their kids on a sleep schedule all summer long.  Guess what?  The kids will be grumbling and tired the first week of school regardless of their sleep schedule now.  For most typically developing children, moving their bedtimes back by 15 minutes each day for a week before school will work fine.  Teenagers need several hours of sleep and the natural rhythm of a teen is to sleep in; it does not mean they are “lazy,” “unmotivated,” “not going to adjust to school wake up time.”  They are growing and developing. If you are worrying about these things, you are probably worrying not planning.

“How can I enjoy the now with all these things to do?”  Good question:  start with just a couple of breaths, focus on your chest rising and lowering. Try it now. Simple, not a big deal, you don’t have to become a yogi.  Next, focus on how the chair or floor feel against your body, arms, tush.  Focus on what you hear?  When your mind wanders, and it will, gently bring it back to focus on what you smell…This is exactly how you start to live in the now.  It is just a habit like all other habits to focus on your senses, 10-15 seconds at a time.  If you are making dinner, focus on the feel of the ingredients in your hands, the smell, flavor, maybe 10 seconds.  When you lay down to sleep tonight, go through your senses.  The mind will wander and judge, gently bring it back to focus on what you see, smell, taste and hear.

Now let’s work on your thinking patterns. Thinking patterns have something similar to muscle memory for riding a bike or two-tracts on a country road in which the wheels naturally fit.  Thinking patterns are habits too which can be changed.  If you would like to enjoy the now more, tell yourself you can worry about that at “worry time” (10-15 minutes at a designated time) or jot it down to plan later.  Recall that planning and worrying can be hard to distinguish from one another.  Another technique psychologists use is the counter-thought or alternative to the thoughts that pop into your head.  

“If I don’t worry about our trip, we won’t be ready.”       

Alternative:  “I have planned, if I forgot something, we will buy it there.” 

“If I don’t get ready for school, I might forget something.”

Alternative: “I will probably forget something but I can deal with that. It always works out.”

“Last year was a disaster.”

Alternative: “Last year was not great, but we got through it.”

Which of these statements feels less anxiety-provoking?  The alternative thought is either the opposite or the believable alternative.  Now, this is not just being positive, it is a strategically alternative thought.

Practice being in the now 5-10 seconds at a time and try to challenge your automatic thoughts with an alternative, you might just reduce your worrying and enjoy today a little more. 

Sheryl Lozowski-Sullivan, MPH, PhD.

Printed in the Good News paper, September 2019

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