By Melissa Klosk, PsyD
Every student has at least some nerves at the beginning of a new school year. This time of year brings many changes and unknowns. Usually, these worries get less intense with time, as you get used to a new routine. But if you’re still feeling super nervous a couple months into the new school year, it’s worth checking in with yourself to see what’s causing these feelings and if you need to ask for some extra help.
Here are some specific steps you can take to manage stress or anxiety.
What are you feeling and why?
It can be hard to figure out where your emotions are coming from. Start paying attention to how your body feels throughout the day. Are your shoulders or other muscles tense? Do you have a stomachache or a headache? Is your heart racing?
These physical feelings can be signs of anxiety or stress.
You should also pay attention to your thoughts. Are you having a hard time concentrating? If so, what thoughts are distracting you?
When do you feel this way? Is it before a certain class? When you think you’ll see a specific person? When you meet new people? Understanding when these feelings occur can help tell you why you’re feeling the way you are and when it’s likely to happen.
Make a plan
Anxiety is the body’s way of alerting us to stressful events. Anxiety isn’t always a bad emotion—it can actually be really helpful, like motivating you to study hard for a big test!
However, you don’t have to go through your day feeling so tense, stressed or anxious that you can’t concentrate in class or have fun with your friends. Put together a plan to help make stress more manageable. Below are some of the school stressors my clients talk to me about and what I generally recommend. Of course, the way you handle your stress may be as unique as you! A trusted teacher, doctor or mental health clinician can also help you come up with strategies for your specific situation.
If you’re stressed about a specific class, talk to the teacher. They are there to help you. Try visiting them before or after school to say hello, establish a relationship and ask questions about assignments. They may be able to help create a strategy for dealing with your stress. They can also schedule extra help sessions. Stay on top of the class material by asking for help early. This way you can feel in control instead of overwhelmed.
If you’re nervous about not having friends in your classes, think of this as an opportunity to meet new people. Push yourself to talk to classmates you might not have otherwise. Remember, the social aspects of school can be frightening for everyone and you are not alone. Make time to hang out with friends you don’t see during the day outside of school.
If auditions, try outs or exams make you especially nervous, ask the person running them what you should expect, so you can prepare. Visualize what it will be like the day of the big event. Imagine yourself achieving your goals. The breathing technique below may also come in handy.
Stay organized. Have a system for note-taking and keeping track of assignments. Keep a calendar with the due dates for school projects, doctor’s appointments and other important reminders. This clears out mental clutter so you can focus on learning.
Create a good study environment. Creating a productive and relaxing work environment can reduce anxiety and help you learn. Clear your desk of distracting objects. Schedule breaks for yourself, and don’t check your phone or social media until it’s time for your break.
Practice breathing exercises. Taking deep, calming breaths helps your body relax. A good, deep breath starts in your lower lungs (with your stomach expanding) and moves into your upper lungs (with your chest expanding). Try breathing in for 4-5 seconds, and then out for 6-7 seconds, concentrating on your breath.
Get enough sleep. Aim for 8-10 hours per night. We talk more about how to get a good night’s sleep here. I know it can be hard to prioritize sleep when you’re busy, but getting enough sleep has a major effect on your mood, ability to concentrate, and health overall.
Eat a healthy breakfast and lunch. Don’t skip meals—this can make you hangry and tired and make it harder to concentrate. Consuming lots of sugary products, like soda and sweets, can make you jittery before your energy levels crash, leaving you feeling icky and exhausted.
Get an hour of exercise every day if possible. Moving your body keeps you alert and boosts your mood. Just be careful to exercise at least 3 hours before you plan on going to sleep.
Ask for help
In general, stress is caused by something specific, like an upcoming test. Anxiety is usually less concrete and it can be harder to identify the cause. However, there isn’t always a clear line where stress becomes anxiety. Both can have a major impact on your health and happiness.
Talk to someone you trust—a relative, friend, teacher, doctor or guidance counselor—about what’s going on. Remember that you’re not alone, and you have people who care about you.
Consider seeing a therapist. Therapy is a very useful tool that helps with a wide range of difficulties and can be helpful for anyone looking to grow as a person. A therapist can teach you coping skills to deal with stress and anxiety, whether you have an anxiety disorder or not.
If you are noticing changes in your mood or are having a hard time doing everyday activities, such as going to school or hanging out with friends, talk to your health care provider. They can help you figure out next steps.
If you live in NYC and are 10-22 years old, you can come to the Mount Sinai Adolescent Health Center for free, comprehensive health care, including mental health services.
Melissa Klosk, PsyD is a Postdoctoral Fellow at Mount Sinai Adolescent Health Center and holds a doctoral degree in School and Clinical Child Psychology. Her research explores the intersections between neurodevelopmental delays and severe psychopathology in children and adolescents. She aims to use her unique background in both school and clinical psychology to help the families she works with navigate the special education system. Her additional clinical interests include: learning disorders, intellectual disabilities, Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorders, Posttraumatic Stress Disorder, anxiety disorders, and depressive disorders.
The Mount Sinai Adolescent Health Center is located in New York City. It provides comprehensive, confidential, judgment free health care at no charge to over 10,000 young people every year. This column is not intended to provide medical advice, professional diagnosis, opinion, treatment or services to you or to any other individual, only general information for education purposes only.