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Coping with back-to-school stress and anxiety

Kent State
Posted at 8:55 PM, Jul 30, 2020
and last updated 2020-07-31 12:38:18-04

With students heading back to school—some online and some in person—many of them may be experiencing a lot of stress surrounding the unknown.

Kenzi Allen graduated from Nordonia High School this spring and will begin classes at Kent State this fall, where most of her classes will be online.

For Allen, who will be a pre-vet zoology major, those classes include biology.

“I’m going to have a lot of labs, so the labs are in person for now,” Allen said. “But I think that they might try and change it just because of everything going on and seeing how it's gonna go.”

Allen said it was “really stressful trying to figure out what was going to go on.” She found a roommate, scheduled her classes and then learned the classes would be primarily online. While she was disappointed she wouldn’t get the on-campus experience, Allen said it did relieve stress, “because I don’t have to be as worried about being around so many people that I don’t know.”

“I only live like a half hour from campus,” Allen said. “I figured it's gonna be better to live at home. I'm glad that I have that option. I can save the money and do that.”

She added, “There was a lot of unknowns and there kind of still are, but I feel like we're making the best of it so far.”

Still, while she’s living in the moment for now, Allen said she hopes she’ll be able to live on campus for spring semester.

“I’m a freshman. I want the college experience,” Allen said. “That's one of the reasons that I chose Kent, because I loved the campus and I loved the city around it. I'm not going to be able to experience that, so I am really hoping that things get better and that people are all doing their part to make sure that we can do that.”

Allen said some of her friends have different perspectives on the situation they’ll face as college freshmen. One wants to live on campus, no matter what. Another, like Allen, is “up for anything.” And a third friend made the decision to go to a community college for now to get prerequisites out of the way, rather than the university he planned to attend.

Allen has been trying to prepare for college, making masks and hoping she and her family can stay safe.

“That's kind of my biggest worry, just because like being on a college campus, not knowing where all these people are from and what they're doing,” Allen said.

Her mother, Leslie Allen, agreed, adding, “Going to school and being with a roommate, you eat, sleep, live with this person. You don't know what they do when they leave campus and come back.”

She added that “the biggest thing is really just staying safe and making sure everybody knows the importance, so we get through this quickly, and that's the only way we're gonna do it is everybody listens and does what they're supposed to do.”

'Uncertainty is part of our immediate future'

Dr. David Miler is the medical director of pediatric integrative medicine with the Connor Integrative Health Network with University Hospitals.

He noted that young people, as well as adults, are dealing with “stress and anxiety, frustration, disappointment and really the need to adapt in a way we haven't been asked to adapt before."

It’s not just COVID-19, according to Miller, but also other important national conversations, such as social justice reform, that young people are having to process all at once.

“Trying to reduce your stress in this time of uncertainty partially comes down to, at least in piece, accepting that uncertainty is part of our immediate future,” Miller said.

He added, “I think we all want to go to school. We want to go to college, have an amazing college experience and do these things. And I think it's healthier right now for young people to accept that we're just going to try this out, like nobody's done it before. The adults haven't done it before. The kids haven't done it before.”

He said while everyone is working hard to stay safe and healthy, “it’s going to demand adaptation.”

“Going in with the expectation that we don't know what's going to happen, things may change, I may have to do this from home, will lead to lessening of disappointment, if and when that does happen,” Miller said.

He said one thing parents can do to help their young children or older children cope is to “dip into their experience” and find their own tools for resiliency and managing uncertainty.

“Can they think of any other times in their lives where they had this type of uncertainty in any way, shape or form, and then model the behavior of, ‘You know what, we're gonna wait and see. We're going to do the best we can. We're going to take care of ourselves. We're going to do things like eat right. We're going to exercise. We're going to optimize our sleep. We're going to do all of the things that we know are important for keeping ourselves as healthy as possible. And then, you know, we're just gonna get through this together,’” Miller said.

He said emphasizing those steps toward maintaining health is a good use of nervous energy.

Asked how the ongoing nature of the pandemic adds stress, Miller said from an evolutionary biology standpoint, our stress response is designed to deal with sudden stressors that end quickly.

“With prolonged stressors, we're sort of not wired for that as well,” Miller said. “So it really becomes incumbent on us to bring to fore our more advanced sort of brain tools, to be able to say, ‘This is an extraordinary situation and I need to leverage all my resources to make it through this, because this is going to be a marathon.’”

Still, it’s appropriate to feel a certain amount of anxiety and acknowledge it instead of resisting it, Miller said.

“I think what I see a lot of people doing, too, is they become anxious about being anxious. They feel bad for feeling anxious. They beat themselves up for it. They have negative thoughts around it,” Miller said. “To some degree, just accept that there's anxiety that's appropriate. Let yourself feel a little bit of that and then let yourself move on from it, too.”

He urged people to consider setting limits with friends and family about talking about COVID-19 or checking for news updates on it all the time, noting that talking about it all the time does not change the progression of the virus.

Instead, he reminded people to do what’s right: wear a mask, wash your hands, keep physical distance and “don’t go to big parties.”

“Find ways to really enjoy your time, get a great exercise, enjoy the Metroparks, enjoy the outdoors wherever you can and find ways to interface with your friends and your family in safe ways and focus on those positives,” Miller said.

For college students in particular, he cautioned against substance use.

“It's easy for people when they're anxious to to slip into habits of substance abuse and misuse, and so it's just a little bit of an extra caution right now,” Miller said.

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