Back-to-School Stress, How Much Is Too Much?

It’s no secret that when the summer sun begins to set, it doesn’t take long for back-to-school stress to set in.

Health Talk spoke with Michael Miller, Psy.D., L.P., an associate psychologist in theDepartment of Psychiatry about how this strain can impact the wellbeing of students, and what parents can do to help combat stress as school is in session.

Stress is the body’s natural response to a seemingly harmful or threatening experience and we react in what is considered the Three F’s: Fight, Flight, or Freeze. This reaction creates a cascade of physical responses including increased heart rate, breath quickening, muscle tightening and blood pressure rising.

Children dealing with high stress can experience:

  • More interrupted sleep and nightmares
  • Becoming more emotionally sensitive to criticism
  • A regression in their developmental milestones including an increase in accidents and self-soothing behaviors such as sucking their thumb
  • Isolation from peers and adults

Though sometimes stress can be helpful in the short term, to help us accomplish certain goals as it sharpens our focus on a particular task, too much stress puts a strain on the immune system and can lead to a number of physical illnesses. These can range from colds and headaches to more long-term physical complications.

“When stress is limiting the ability to perform tasks that are normally simple or there is an increase in frustration tolerance, there is a problem,”  said Miller. “With repeated exposure to a new setting such as school, stress should decrease with repeated days in the classroom. If this does not occur, there is a problem and help should be sought as quickly as possible.”

Miller offers many ways parents can help their students deal with stress in a healthy way, including:

  • Keep expectations realistic – everyone struggles with transitions.
  • Have the student keep a planner – the less ambiguity in their schedule, the easier it is to manage the sense of limited control over their environment.
  • Add changes slowly – gradually add other changes to the schedule after the start of school, not all at once.
  • Find ways to relieve stress – fun games or bike riding provide a sense of family support and connectedness as well as exercise.  
  • Laugh – laughter is an excellent combatant to stress, anxiety and depressed mood.

Additionally, it is important when feeling stressed to maintain open lines of communication with parents, teachers, and peers.

“We all feel more supported and connected if we are able to tell our story of what is happening in our world.” said Miller.