Back-to-School Butterflies: An Opportunity to Reframe Anxiety
by Dr. Dierdre O'Malley, Director of Counseling Services
During the opening days of school, the energy in the air was palpable. Students, faculty and parents alike were feeling the back-to-school jitters, some of us experiencing butterflies in our stomachs and a couple of restless nights. Certainly, many of us wish these feelings would just go away. Anxiety can be deeply uncomfortable and at its worst can make us feel miserable, emotionally and physically.
But, as I often ask my students, what would happen to us if anxiety didn’t exist? At first, many students sigh and smile and describe what an idyllic world that would be. But with some thought, they realize that they probably wouldn't have gotten up out of bed when the alarm rang that morning, they certainly wouldn’t be prepping for a history exam and they might have been injured on their last bike ride.
Anxiety gives us essential signals about how to keep ourselves safe, and can help us move smartly and quickly. It motivates us to do things that are important and concentrates our focus. We can think of emotional stress like the physical stress that happens to our bodies when we exercise; it’s something that can be temporarily uncomfortable, but can also greatly improve our functioning. When we think back to the first days of school, our anxieties probably helped us tune into what was most important to know and helped us be alert enough to navigate all of the newness.
I often have students imagine their anxious feelings as a wave - one that rises, but inevitably falls. We have never experienced an emotion that didn’t end. By the second week of school, the most intense nervousness has typically started to soften. I like to have students reflect back on what they were worried about the week before. How long did it last and how did they get through it? What can we learn from that experience that can help us the next time we feel stressed?
Of course, just like with physical exercise, rest and recovery are essential for staying healthy and preventing harm. As we all fill in our calendars with after-school activities and obligations, let’s be serious about leaving room for downtime and recuperation. Giving teens time to just be can be crucial to making sure the stress they experience at school remains at a healthy level. Guarding sleep and downtime can be hard but are key to mental health.
By viewing our anxious feelings as both helpful and temporary, and ensuring we get rest and take breaks, we can all be in a better position to endure and manage feelings of worry and stress.
If you have concerns about your child’s level of worry, consider reaching out to myself
or Vanessa Vitiello
, Ph.D. here at D-E.