Back to School Stress vs. Anxiety – How Do I Know the Difference?
Someone said, “there’s a first time for everything.” For students across Arkansas, the first weeks of school have started. First time to wear those new school shoes. First time to use that new backpack. Maybe the first time in a brand new school. For some readers, it may even be the first time your kids are leaving home for school altogether.
For me personally, I’m experiencing a couple of firsts today as well. I am writing my first-ever blog post, AND I am the first-ever licensed social worker to work at ACCESS®! Now, I am a seasoned social worker with over 15 years of experience working with kids, but somehow staring at a blank computer screen with a deadline and a million thoughts and words swarming around in my head can illicit just a bit of anxiety – even for someone who treats anxiety in kids on a daily basis!
So that got me thinking… I often fondly tease my therapist colleagues on the importance of taking “deep breffs.” But why and how is this an important part of successfully dealing with the pressure of back to school time? And how can we as parents and caretakers best model for our school-aged children how to deal with stressful events in their lives? What is the difference between stress and anxiety? How do we teach our kids to deal with life stressors successfully? And most importantly, how much stress is normal, and when does stress become something that warrants professional help? Follow along with me, and we will navigate some of these “back to school firsts” together.
“I’m So Stressed”
Raise your hand if you have ever uttered this phrase. Everyone, right? According to the MedlinePlus Medical Encyclopedia, the definition of stress is “a feeling of emotional or physical tension that can come from any event or thought that makes you feel frustrated, angry, or nervous.” Stress can cause our body to react to a challenge or demand. Stress can help us avoid danger or motivate us to meet a deadline. Stress often keeps us safe by triggering an innate response that causes our bodies to release hormones that make our brains more alert, our muscles to tense and be ready for action, and our pulse to increase to provide safety when danger is perceived. In other words, stress is not always a bad thing. It’s actually useful and helps us function in our environment.
But when does stress become too much? When a person experiences chronic stress, their body stays in that state of alertness even when there is no danger around . . . and our bodies are not equipped to remain in that state for the long term. This is where emotional and health issues come into play. I often tell my kids that I work with . . . “those feelings are going to come out one way or another. You are either going to talk about them or they are going to make you sick.” The image of a volcano is a common therapy analogy. All that stress and anger and sadness is just lurking under the surface. When it is not dealt with appropriately, it’s going to blow and has the potential to be a bit messy.
Dealing with the Lava
My kids love to play “the floor is lava.” Imagine pillows and blankets strewn across the living room floor, kids jumping from one piece of furniture to another, making sure that their feet don’t touch the imaginary lava that is everywhere. It drives me crazy. But for some reason, they love this game. Now imagine that each one of those “safe spots” are coping skills that you can use to avoid the hot, liquid fire of the out of control anger, frustration, anxiety, or depression that we can experience from time to time in our lives. That first pillow is a deep breathing technique or a yoga class. Another pillow or stepping stone is having a friend or therapist to talk to. Maybe the armchair is a good workout at the gym or a quick run around the block. And another is a deep tissue massage or manicure. Even small things like 30 minutes to read a book, a hot relaxing shower, or a nap are cheap and easy ways to help manage that eruption.
How does this translate to helping our kids deal with stress you ask? Because the better we, as caregivers, are able to deal with our stress, the less stressed our kids will be. Because our kids learn and model everything we do, self-care and coping skills need to begin with parents. Because like it or not, our kids perceive way more than we give them credit for – and they know when Mom or Dad or Grandmother isn’t feeling quite right. Because being effective parents means taking care of our own stress in positive ways. This is the part where I am giving you permission to take time for the massage, or the workout, or the yoga class. The bottom line is this – it will help you as a parent, and therefore it will help your child as well.
I’m As Cool As a Cucumber, But I Have a Really Anxious Kid… Now What?
I did the massage, I worked out, I read a book . . . my kid is still stressed. That social worker doesn’t know what she’s talking about. (Is that what you are thinking?) Stress and anxiety share many of the same symptoms – but anxiety may be what you are dealing with if the symptoms are chronic, persistent, and don’t seem to be associated with a particular stressor. When the stress seems overwhelming and is causing dysfunction in your child’s home or school environment; when typical coping strategies don’t seem to help; when health problems begin to emerge; or if other issues develop such as depression or anger outbursts, then it may be time to seek professional help for your child. The CDC reports that approximately 4.4 million children in the United States are diagnosed with anxiety, compared to only 1.9 million diagnosed with depression and 6.1 million diagnosed with ADHD. What I see when I read those statistics is that anxiety is highly prevalent in children in our society. A child with ADHD or a learning disability is up to 3 times more likely to experience anxiety.
Anxiety and stress can be real life issues that we all deal with every day in our world – both parents and kids, and they can surface on the 1st day of school or the 63rd day of school. Sometimes there are triggers that are noticeable, like being bullied at school or the loss of a pet. But other times it seems to come at us from out of the blue. If you have questions or concerns about your child during this back to school season, or any other time, behavioral health treatment is one way that can help.
I am proud to be part of the ACCESS’ new behavioral health program. Contact us for any questions or concerns. We can help you navigate those hot spots, and we might even play a game of “the floor is lava” as we go.
About Erin Weber, Licensed Clinical Social Worker
Erin is a licensed, certified social worker with more than 15 years of clinical experience. She enjoys working with children, adolescents, and young adults to help them improve their communication skills and learn to express their thoughts and feelings in healthy ways. Individual therapy services are available with areas of focus to include trauma, anxiety, stress, parent-child relational problems and depression. Erin believes that positive change can occur when individuals are given the guidance they need to draw on their own strengths and realize their potential to live fulfilling, happy lives.
Contact Erin at ACCESS for more information or to schedule an appointment. 501.217.8600