Ran Zilca is a researcher, tech entrepreneur, personal coach, teacher, and musician. He's the author of Ride of Your Life — A Cost to Coast Guide to Inner Peace, a blog and book describing his 6,000-mile motorcycle journey. He is also the Chief Scientist at bLife Inc., a company developing scientifically-based digital well-being tools. The views expressed herein are his. Learn more about Ran on his website, www.RideOfYourLife.com.
Before we all had a chance to blink, summer ended, and fall is now at our doorstep. Students of all ages, from preschool to graduate school, are preparing for a new year, anticipating new teachers, new friends, and new learning experiences. If you’re going back to school (or have children who are), this can be an exciting but stressful transition.
These stresses may come in several forms. Logistically, you may need to run numerous errands to be prepared for the new school year. Financially, you will likely spend money on a lengthy shopping list that includes new clothes, writing materials, and possibly a computer and other tech gadgets. Socially, you may be preparing to meet new people and say goodbye to old friends. Emotionally, you face the unknown in the form of new teachers, classrooms, and rules. It can be easy to feel overwhelmed.
But looked at another way, the start of a new school year is also a pathway to exciting opportunities that will allow you to learn and grow, to become more resilient, and to make new friends for life.
To shift from a stressed-out mindset to a more positive one, adopt these five science-backed tools that will help you start the school year stress-free and full of excitement.
Tool Number One: Reminisce on Last Year’s Memories
If you think back on past transitions to school, you’ll recall that they were stressful, too. But they passed and likely made way to great new experiences. Reminiscing on those happy occasions will remind you of the things you like about school, and shift your attention away from your concerns.
In fact, replaying past happy days can help reduce stress and treat symptoms of depression. Studies have found people who reminisce on good experiences, perhaps while looking at photo albums or smartphone videos, relive the good moments and benefit from the reoccurrence of positive emotions Simple reminiscence: a stress-adaptation model of the phenomenon. Puentes, WJ. Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey. Issues in Mental Health Nursing, 2002 Jul-Aug;23(5):497-511.
Take a few moments to look at fun photos from last year, either alone or with friends. Spend some time looking at each picture, and recall what it felt like to be in those situations. Try to remember every fine detail: What did you wear? What was the weather like? What did you do for the remainder of the day? Reflecting on these happy moments will help relieve anxiety in the present.
Tool Number Two: Embrace Change as an Opportunity to Grow
The influential thinker Nassim Taleb, author of the best-selling book The Black Swan, writes on the concept of antifragility: the ability to grow, reinvent oneself, and evolve new skills when faced with changes in an environment. According to Taleb, change is the source of all creativity and growth in life, business, and even biology and evolution. From this perspective, challenges are a means to future growth — something to be embraced, not avoided.
Instead of focusing on the beginning of the year, imagine yourself at the end of it. Picture yourself having graduated from school (or having raised a child who’s graduated) and looking back. Imagine how much more evolved and capable you will be, and how proud you will be of your accomplishment. Feel your anxiety dissipate with the knowledge that you are only going to grow stronger.
Tool Number Three: Organize Clutter
Going back to school can involve needing to keep track of an overwhelming amount of physical items, including papers, forms, books, and school supplies. If they’re not organized into individual bags or compartments, these items form clutter — which is a major determinant of stress. In a 2012 study, researchers found physical clutter in the home resulted in a measurable increase of stress hormones in the bloodstream of mothers. And psychologists have long spoken of the connection between a messy environment and stress that many people experience.
To bar the build-up of clutter and the stress that comes with it, allocate time to tidy up and put things away neatly. Prepare school bags and clothes the night before, arrange books and school supplies on shelves or in boxes or drawers, organize all paperwork by priority, and make a single to-do list of all the tasks you need to complete each day.
Tool Number Four: Breathe Consciously
Most of us unconsciously hold our breath when we are preoccupied, busy, or stressed. A 2007 study found that 80 percent of people tend to hold their breath, without realizing it, while engaged in daily email correspondence. A similar phenomenon can occur when we’re busy in the midst of errands, work, or preparations. Failing to breathe deeply means our brains may not be getting the oxygen they need, and also robs us of the stress-relieving capabilities of breath.
It’s important to stop once in a while and literally take a breather. Practicing conscious breathing can help your brain better manage stress and emotions Differential engagement of anterior cingulate and adjacent medial frontal cortex in adept meditators and non-meditators. Holzel, BK, Ott, U., Hempel, H., et al. Bender Institute of Neuroimaging, Justus-Liebig-University, Germany. Neurosicence Letters, 2007 Jun 21;421(1):16-21. Epub 2007 May 25. Conscious breathing exercises can be performed anytime, anywhere, and will counter disruptive breathing patterns such as holding the breath. Want to go a step further? Just a few minutes of meditation each day can help transform negative thoughts and reverse the damage that stress does to our bodies and minds.
Tool Number Five: Give Your Mind a Concrete Vision of the Future
The mind deals with concerns about the future by trying to simulate impending events. We envision the future so we can mentally practice the proper behavior or response to hypothetical scenarios, and feel more prepared as a result. But if you don’t have a clear picture of your future environment, it’s hard to simulate the things to come: What will your classes look like? Where will you sit? Who will be sitting next to you? What will the teacher be like? Left unchecked, these ruminations can lead to stress and anxiety.
To help your mind feel more prepared for the future unknown, do anything you can to become more familiar with what will soon be your new environment. Visit your new classroom(s), join social media groups for your school or class, and meet with your new teachers or look them up online. The more details you have at your disposal, the better the mental image you create, the more you’re able to prepare for the reality of your situation (as opposed to hypothetical disasters), and the lower your levels of stress.
Managing back-to-school stress may seem like an overwhelming task, but it’s actually pretty simple. By reflecting on happy memories, embracing change, getting organized, practicing deep breathing, and imagining the future in concrete terms, you will be well prepared to ride the wave of stress to new and sunshiny shores.
What are your best tips for coping with back-to-school stress? Share in the comments below.