Aug. 15, 2022

How To Manage Back-To-School Anxiety

How To Manage Back-To-School Anxiety
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How To Manage Back To School Anxiety

How do you look forward to a new school year?

A new school year offers a lot of possibilities, but there are certain factors that can cause stress and anxiety. Bullying intimidates students. Conflicts among colleagues discourage teachers. With recent cases of gun violence causing tragedy, vigilance is a much-needed defense.  

Worry and fear are normal reactions in challenging times, but always assuming the worst possibilities threatens your mental health. In this episode, John shares his experience in helping students as a mental health professional in school districts. He also cites simple techniques in addressing and coping with anxiety by breathing and sensory exercises. 

As the new school year starts, a memorable one begins with the right mindset and a positive outlook.

[1:40] John has first-hand experience counseling students in schools.  
[3:30] What are some responsibilities of the teachers and faculty?
[4:40] Bullying causes anxiety.
[6:30] John and his family took care of his son in his anxious moments. 
[7:40] What are the different types of anxiety?
[9:00] What is anticipatory anxiety?
[12:50] Engaging in conversation with the student is important. 
[14:07] Managing anxiety requires identifying the causes of thoughts. 
[16:40] Faculty members can also manage their anxiety. 
[18:13] For a lot of students, school is their safe place. 
[19:13] Students act out on their trauma. 
[20:38] This is the perfect exercise to manage anxiety. 
[24:52] What is active observation?
[28:50] Reach out to John. 

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Learn more about John Cordray at 

Disclaimer: The Mental Health Today Show is for educational purposes only and should not be interpreted as therapy. If you are seeking therapy, please contact a licensed therapist for help.


It's that time of year again for millions and millions of students, young and old to go back to school again. And that alone brings a lot of anxiety among students and faculty members and parents. And in light of least in the us, there's a lot of school shootings. And that brings a lot of anxiety as well.

But then there's social anxiety, separation, anxiety. And it's really difficult sometimes for parents to get their kids ready for school in the mornings. And it's really hard for faculty members, educators to get up in the morning and, and go and face the anxiety that comes with their work. So this episode, I'm gonna talk about how to manage back to school and anxiety.

And it's applicable for the young kids, as well as the older kids and older adults in educators, all the way up to administrators. This is a very applicable episode. So we're gonna talk about managing back-to-school stress coming right. 

Welcome to the mental health today. Show my name is John Cordray. I am a licensed therapist. I've actually been a licensed therapist since 2007. I know I'm letting you know my age there, aging myself, but I've been doing this for a long, long. And for about four years, I actually worked inside a school district.

And so this topic of this episode is very near and dear to my heart. I love working with children and with adolescents and my role at the school that I was in. My job as a mental health therapist was to help the schools and the teachers learn how to identify the kids with the most trauma and abuse in their background, and then how to help them.

So often the students in the classrooms who were getting in trouble the most that was really acting up were, who were not doing well in school and they were failing or they were truant and never showed up. So often those kids were overlooked. And instead of asking ourselves what is going on with this child, we, the traditional view of a child who's acting up or not doing what they're supposed to do.

It's the traditional mindset is what's wrong with this child instead of what happened to this child. And I know from my experience, Not just as a therapist, but also working in the schools that so many, many, many students, as well as the teachers and faculty have anxiety and thought of going back it's not just a job.

So if you're not an educator, you have no idea what it's like to work. Ed educator in the school system. Because there are way more things to consider as a teacher, as a staff member that is not publicized, and are not talked about. It is not glamorous. It is very difficult. And yet the staff from the custodians all the way up to the principal of the schools have a lot of extra things that they do.

And its relationships with these. And so sometimes as adults,, we struggle as well with the anxiety and going back to work. And it's not necessarily because the job is hard it's because the job is very difficult in a way that it's not the job itself. It's working with the students who are struggling and it could be very difficult and a lot of your parents, and you're getting ready to send your child back to school.

Maybe you already have done that depending on when your district starts school, but you're getting ready to get ready. Your, and your kids are ready for school in the mornings. And it can be very difficult and your kids might have the anxiety of going back and they resist and they put up a, a fight if you will.

And they just don't wanna go. And it's not because it's necessarily school. But it's because of the anxiety that comes with going somewhere that could be new. It's a new grade, new class, new teacher, and new students could be a completely new school. If you moved recently, there could be a lot of conflicts. It could be bullying going on or subtle bullying.

Do you know what I mean? Right. About the subtle bullying where a student may not go and try to steal your lunch money. But they'll say certain things that are hurtful. They'll do certain things that really make you uncomfortable, make a student uncomfortable. And I call that subtle bullying. It's still very impactful in a bad way, and that can produce a lot of anxiety in students.

So anxiety is a very real thing. No matter how old or how young you are. You might be as a parent experiencing anxiety for your child because you know that your child has a difficult time at school, or maybe it's a difficult teacher and there's conflict there. And so there's a lot of anxiety. Maybe you've heard horror stories, bad stories about the teacher that your student is really getting ready to go and, and be in their classroom.

And you're hearing all these bad things and you're getting worried and. And wondering if this teacher is going to treat your child nicely or in a bad way. And so there's all this anxiety. And, and so often that the back-to-school anxiety is not really talked about, and that's why I wanted to talk through and, and really devote an episode on managing back-to-school, anxiety.

Because it's so important and it needs to be talked about, and it can be worked through. And if it's severe anxiety, that's one thing. Severe anxiety can really cause a lot of, a lot of physical symptoms as well. And I know as a parent myself, my son he. Quite a bit older now he's an adult, but when he was a senior, his senior year towards the end of the senior year of his high school, he has severe anxiety.

We don't, we didn't know where it was coming from. He even as his dad, you know, I'm a therapist and. I knew it was bad. It was, it was really getting to him. And so we had to work with a school and they accommodated him to be able to come into school only at certain times of the day to do a lot of his work online.

This was before COVID. And so it, it was, we were very fortunate as parents that his school and his teachers were very accommodating. But I know what it's like as a parent when a when you have a child who is severely depressed or severely anxious and they cannot get themselves into the classroom and it, it could be very difficult for parents.

And, and then, and then if it's not severe, so many more people suffer from the anxiety. It's not as severe, but it can interfere with so many things, whether it's separation anxiety or social anxiety, or just general anxiety, where you don't know where it's coming from. So for the really little kids in a preschool pre-K kindergarten, maybe first.

A lot of times there's gonna be one or two students in the classroom that are terrified and they don't wanna leave their parent when the parent drops 'em off for school. And it's, it takes a lot of time to work with that child and for that child to feel safe. And it, and that's the key is time. So there's a, it, it's hard to know as a parent, when to push your child and work through the anxiety in whether or not to ease up a little bit and get some extra help.

It's hard to know. And it's difficult sometimes making that parent call, right? The call that, that. The decision that you make for your child is it can be very difficult. So you, we do the best that we can, and we encourage our children to go and to help manage their anxiety and go to school. And so often that's all it needs.

It's all a student needs where it's all a, all an adult needs, right? So it's anticipatory anxiety is the worst because it hasn't the event hasn't happened yet, but you're imagining in yourself that it's going to happen and it's gonna be bad. And that's where the anxiety comes and it gets worse right before actually gets into school.

So it's trying to manage the anxiety from the moment you get up in the morning to when you walk through the doors of the classroom. And so many kids, so many adults struggle with that timeframe, that window, that anticipatory anxiety. So how do you manage that? What do you say if you're a parent? What do you say to yourself, if you're an adult or maybe a high school student or a college student, what do you say to yourself to get through the anxiety, to manage it?

To what I call Pierce the wall you Pierce through the wall of that anxiety and you do the very thing that. Produces the anxiety itself, right? So you go to school and you make yourself go to school and you enter the classroom. And then once you start conversations, you get settled in. For the most part, the anxiety can go away because it's anticipatory, right?

It's leading up to the event. And once you're there, it's not as bad. It's not as bad as you think it's going. And so if you're a parent or someone who is trying to manage their own anxiety just know that a lot of the anxiety that you're experiencing is starting with the thought you're, you're catastrophizing.

You are assuming the worst and you don't know it to be what's true. You think it's, what's. In most cases in most cases, it's what you think is going to happen. And that thing that's gonna happen is gonna be terrible. So a lot of people, when they think, oh, this is gonna be terrible. I don't want to go to school today.

Cuz I've I, I didn't study. I, I have a test or, you know, a certain person, a certain student is there and they're gonna bully me and they're gonna say something and I just know it and it's gonna ruin my day and I don't want to go. Or I'm gonna make a fool of myself. I'm gonna embarrass myself and I don't want to go.

People are gonna laugh at me and they're gonna point at me and they're gonna leave and reject me. I don't want to go to school cuz I just know what's gonna happen, but it's not really knowing what's gonna happen. You can't predict the future. It's what you assume is going to happen. And that assumption is faulty thinking.

That's influencing how you feel, which then ultimately influences how you behave. So when you realize that the thought that you're having may not be based on truth, then you can do something about the thought. So it's not about the feeling. So if you're anxious about something, you're worried about something that's valid, cuz there are a lot of things in the world to be worried about.

But when it's rooted in something of, of your thought that you think is going to happen, then it's being influenced. That feeling of anxiety is being influenced by something that you don't know to be true, but you think it's true. You see the difference. And when you can recognize that the thought that you're having is faulty.

It's not true. It's what you think is true. Then you work on that thought and you work on that thought by trying to replace the negative with what you know, to be true or an alternative or ask yourself. What is another way of thinking about this situation in this case? What's another way of thinking about going to school?

Are people really going to laugh at? So, if you're a parent, you can ask these questions, you wanna validate how they feel. Don't make them feel bad. Don't get mad at them for resisting, going to school, because there's a reason there, but you, you become kind of the inquisitive, right? So like Sherlock Holmes, he asks a bunch of questions.

And so you're gonna ask questions, not interrogate, but asking questions where, where this feeling is coming from. And so they'll tell. They'll say, I, I just know that I don't want to go to school because I'm gonna say something that's gonna be embarrassing. Or I got a haircut and I hate my haircut and they're gonna make fun of me.

And so you can ask them, oh, how many times have people actually made fun of you in the past? And a student might say, well,  and you can say, well, okay, so no one has made fun of you in the past. So what's making you think that someone's going to make fun of you now? And it's possible. They might say well, just because it didn't happen to pass doesn't mean it won't happen.

That's true. But what we're trying to do is reframe their thinking to O to the opposite of that. Well, if people haven't made fun of you up to this point, what's to say, they're going to make fun of you now? And so the whole point, the whole object of this, to help them manage their anxiety, they're back to school.

Anxiety is to help them. First of all, identify if their thought is faulty. And then if it. Doing something about that thought to make it to reframing it, re replacing it with an alternative thought, or maybe it's something, oh my gosh, something terrible is going to happen. They're catastrophizing. And then you can say, okay, if that happens, the thing that you're afraid of, if that happens, what can you do about it?

So you give them an action plan. So sometimes bad things happen. Let's talk about what you can do. If it does happen, chances are that bad thing won't happen, but let's come up with, a plan. If it does. If people actually do laugh at you, let's talk about that and then let them validate and, and express their emotion and their anxiety about it.

But you're listening. You're not condemning yourself. Helping them realize that, oh, it's okay for me to feel this way, but it may not be rooted in what's true. What's actually going to happen? So that is huge. And if you're an adult and you're thinking through this, this is something that you do internally with yourself.

So when you have identified the very thing that you're, that you're nervous about, that you're anxious about, maybe you don't want to, if you're a faculty member, you don't want to go into the school. It's a lot of work. It's a lot of thankless work. No, in fact, there are gonna be students there that hate you.

They're gonna be parents that are gonna be complaining and may hate you. And so it's like, why am I a teacher in the first place? And I know my wife is an. For many, many, many years. And, and, and now she is a principal. So she gets her fair, fair share of people who don't like her decisions. And, and that's hard.

It's hard. And when you are faced with that day in and day out, and students complaining, parents complaining other faculty members complaining, it's like, why am I doing this? Right. And it can produce a lot of. Because on top of the teaching, you have to have it all together and you may not have it all together in your own personal life.

Your family might be falling apart, but yet you have to go in front of this class of tons of like up to 20 kids in your classroom and be able to have it all together, or at least appear to have it all together and be able to teach your lesson plan, to be able to grade and have your grades in the grade book.

And then you have to deal with all the complaining students. That is hard to do. So as a faculty member think it through, what is it, the actual thing that you're thinking about? Are you catastrophizing are the thoughts that you have, what you're, you're assuming is going to happen, or is it something that actually does happen?

So there's a difference. Having your faulty thinking and it's it rooted in something that you think is true rather than something that actually is maybe there's a conflict with a co a colleague or a conflict with your boss and you don't wanna go to school and go to work and your anxiety is coming up and you know, you have to talk to them.

It, it's just really hard. Well, in that case, the emotions fit the context. And that makes sense. And so you, then you work on the emotion. And when you work on emotions, you might have to do some deep breathing. You might have to do some active what I call active observation, where you are grounding yourself, acknowledging your anxiety, but then being able to work on lowering and managing that anxiety so you can get to work.

So you can face the event that is happening or going to happen.  and so it, it's a very real thing back to school. Anxiety is a very real thing. And, and I, I remember when I was a student and going to high school, I loved having a long summer break and it was great. But not so great when it was time to go back to school.

And, and in my case, I just didn't like the school  I didn't wanna go to school. I didn't wanna be there cause I had so much fun during the summer, but for a lot of students. School is their safe place. A lot of the students or all of the students, actually that I worked with when I worked at the school district were kids who had a lot of trauma in their life and a lot of abuse.

And a lot of that came from their home and school was their safe place and they felt safe enough to be able to express their feelings. And when a child expresses their feelings and, and is not usually in a good.  and they act out on their trauma and many times students act out on their trauma in, in the classroom, and then their behavior results in getting in trouble.

Or, and sometimes the behavior can be so violent that the whole classroom has to leave and evacuate. If you will, in order for different faculty to work with this student, that's causing the disruption. And then the schools that I worked in, sometimes students would flip over tables. They would hide under their desk.

They would throw an iPad and, in some cases, injure teachers and faculty members, and in some cases had to get surgery. It could get really violent and it's not because the child is terrible or bad, or that there's something wrong with a child. They were acting out of their trauma and a lot of anxiety.

But ultimately they looked at school as their safe place. And because they knew that they were not going to be abused. They were not going to be beaten. They were gonna be loved and sometimes loving a child who bites back if you will, that can be hard. And, and that could produce some anxiety in the faculty members.

But it goes right back to managing your anxiety. And working through those faulty thinking and then working through the emotion itself. So maybe you might need to do some deep breathing and really quickly I'll just explain and tell you what I have taught students and adults alike. I call it, smell the flowers, blow out the candles.

You may have heard me talk about this in previous episodes, but it's a very simple practice too. And it gives you a visualization. So smell the flowers, blow out the candles. And so when your anxiety is high and parents, you can teach this to your child when their anxiety is high and it's increased and it's getting pretty bad, your heart's racing, you're starting to sweat, maybe panic a little bit, try to remember, smell, smell the flowers, blow out the candles, and here's how to do it.

So envision yourself, smelling a. Bouquet of flowers and you keep your mouth shut, right? So you shut your mouth and then inhale really deeply through your nose. And then you hold your breath for a few seconds and then you blow out as if you're gonna blow out all of the birthday candles on your birthday cake.

So the blowout where it's hard enough and long enough to blow it all out in one breath. Okay. So I'm gonna do this on here and see if you can envision yourself so you can follow me. So wherever you're at, if you're riding in a car, driving a car or doing the dishes or wherever you're at, maybe hiking or going on a walk, you can do this wherever you're at.

So smell of flowers, blow out the candles, and let me walk you through it here. Okay. So you wanna close your mouth. You want to inhale through the nose really. I want you to hold your breath for a few seconds, and then I want you to blow out as hard and long as you can. And we wanna do that eight times in a row slowly.

Okay. So here we go. So we want to close your mouth and then I want you to inhale through

your breath for a few seconds and then blow. Like you're blowing out all the birthday candles in your cake.

And I want you to do that eight times slowly. And when you or the person you're talking to try to lower their anxiety, doing this deep breathing exercise will do wonders. Will it take it all away? Maybe not. Will it calm their heart and their mind? Absolutely. So when you breathe in, you're breathing in a lot of oxygen into your lungs and into your brain.

And our brain needs a lot of oxygen because when we are stressed, highly stressed, our body releases a natural. A hormone called cortisol. And when we're super stressed, that cortisol goes into hyperdrive and it goes into hyperdrive, then it can produce panic. It can produce a lot of bodily issues like stomach issues and cramps and headaches, and migraines.

So when you can manage your anxiety through your breathing, it could be very, very helpful. You don't want to do it a lot quicker, a lot really fast. And some kids will, and they don't quite do the routine in the right way. And then they say, oh, doesn't work. We want instant gratification, but that's why I want you to do it slowly, slowly, and rhythmically.

Right. For eight times, just think of eight times. That's just enough to bring it down to calm your mind. And to calm your heart. So let's do it a couple of times here. Ready? Close your mouth and inhale through your nose. Hold your breath. Blow out

again. Hold your breath. Blow out

one more time. Breathe through your nose, hold your breath, blow out.

Okay. So I that's one technique that you can do to help manage your anxiety, whether it's back to school or not when you have the anxiety come. And so often the anxiety brings with it. Some panic. Try to remember the smell, of the flowers, and blow out the candles. And there's one other technique that I've used to help ground people.

And I call this active observation. And again, I've talked about this before, but it works really well. I've had clients in panic mode use this, and they've said it's helpful. But it's active observation. So no matter where you're at again, you could be out walking. You can be in your, in yours. Or wherever just look around you and identify all the things think of your senses.

Right? So look at all the things that you see, listen for all the things that you hear. If you, you might feel something the fan might be blowing on you, you might feel your body and your chair anything that you smell. So anything that you, that you see, if you will, with your senses. And identify. So let's just do one for vis visualization.

So the things around your, around your environment, what do you see? Name them out loud. I see a. And the clock is round it's black. I see a printer, I see a light, I see a computer, and the more detailed that you can get, like color and shape and things like that can be very, very helpful because when you're in a panic mode and when your anxiety is so high, You're not present in the moment.

You're, you're somewhere out in the future, right? Cuz you're anticipating something bad's gonna happen. But when you do active observation, it forces you to slow down and to be in the moment to be present at the moment. So look around, and identify the things that you see. Listen, take a moment. Be silent. You might hear a plane that goes by, you might hear a lawnmower, you might hear a car that goes by, and you might hear a bird chirping in the background.

So name everything that you hear, name, everything that you see, do you feel, what, what do you feel where you're at in your body? The physical sensation, you might feel a breeze. You might feel your body weight in your chair. You might have an, a. That you can identify. My, arm is sore for instance. And, and then if there's could be what you smell, it could be what you taste.

So whatever is around you use that as an active observation as a way to bring your mind focused on the present the here and now, because your emotion of anxiety is getting your way into the future of something that may or may not happen. Try that try the, smell, the flowers, and blow out the candles and active observation.

So, parents, you can, you can work with your child on that, and that could be something every day that you do as a routine in the morning. Adults, if you struggle with back to school, anxiety that's something that you can a part of your routine in the morning, or maybe on your drive to. So I hope that's been helpful.

It's a very real thing. Back to school. Anxiety is a very real thing and it affects thousands and thousands and thousands of people. And so it's a real thing and it's a struggle. And so often we, we don't talk about it. Chances are your child is not gonna go to school and talk about, oh, I have social or back-to-school anxiety.

What do you have? It's not gonna happen. Right. And his chances are, if you're an educator, you're not gonna talk to another educator and say, I have a lot of back-to-school anxiety. Maybe you, you have that relationship be great if you did, but chances are we keep it to ourselves. And so it's important for us to know what can we do to help manage that back-to-school anxiety.

All right. Well, I hope this has been helpful again. And if you are experiencing the back to school anxiety, I hope you use these techniques that I talked about to help manage them. And let me know. I always love to know if this has been helpful for you. It, and also if there's any particular topic you want me to talk about, let me know.

I want to continue to know what it is you wanna listen to, and I want it to be as helpful as. All right. Well, good luck going back to school. If that's you, if you're going back to school, if you're a parent, has a child going back to school, I hope it goes well, I hope it's a good start. And just be mindful and listen and validate their emotions.

All right, friends, I'm gonna let you go. And until next time, take care of yourself. Bye-bye.