The anxiety you’re feeling around back-to-school is normal, even if you’re not a student

Kerry Justich
·5 min read
The back-to-school season is heightening anxiety for everyone during the pandemic. (Photo: Getty Images)
The back-to-school season is heightening anxiety for everyone during the pandemic. (Photo: Getty Images)

It’s been nearly six months since the coronavirus pandemic began to shift the lives of people across the United States — taking work and childcare from corporate offices and professional caretakers to the home, deeming some jobs essential and effectively canceling all summer plans. But with the back-to-school season upon us, the time that people have spent at home while putting their lives as they knew them on pause is becoming evident and leaving many feeling uneasy about both the recent past and future.

“Work blurs into home, days blur into weeks, days blur into nights. We don’t have any demarkations, it’s all blending. So this demarkation of school feels very odd,” adolescent and family psychologist Barbara Greenberg tells Yahoo Life. “Things like the beginning of the school year in August or September have been a marker for all of us for many, many years. Even though you maybe haven’t been in school for a long time, it’s a marker.”

While many people have already been experiencing a certain level of anxiety, stress and even depression during the past few months, Greenberg says that heading into these landmark months is likely to heighten those feelings. She goes on to say that our minds are conditioned to think of September as a sort of renewal, which can bring up those feelings. Jen Hartstein, Yahoo Life’s Mental Health Contributor and practicing psychologist in New York City, adds that the calendar year is how so many of us track the passing of time and even the beginning of a new year and new endeavors.

“Much of our lives is connected not to the calendar year, but to the school year. It marks the ‘end’ of summer, which implies free time and flexibility and a sense of being carefree,” Hartstein says. “When we think about back-to-school, we often associate it with change: new opportunities, fall, work, et cetera. So, even if you aren’t involved in returning to school, it can trigger that age-old anxiety when you were a student and that many students and parents currently feel.”

Heading into what feels like be a fresh start leads people to both reflect on the summer that’s passed, as well as to look toward the future. With the coronavirus pandemic still in motion, Hartstein explains that this time is now bookended by uncertainty.

“This year, back-to-school time might be more anxiety-provoking for many for lots of reasons. One reason is that it’s hard to believe that we have been managing a pandemic for so long,” she explains. “Another reason is that this back-to-school time is very different than in previous years with still so much uncertainty and unknown surrounding it. A third reason is that back-to-school isn’t entirely ‘back-to-school.’ In many areas, the return to the physical building isn’t happening, so it shifts how we are working, learning and educating. All these factors amplify the anxiety that is already present.”

Greenberg refers to it as a “major social experiment” as schools are simply testing whether or not it is safe for students to return to classrooms. While that’s taking place, many people who have stayed in their homes and abided by social distancing protocols may even question the precautions that they’ve been taking throughout this time.

“When we see kids going back to school, it’s very, very confusing and we start questioning our own judgment and that causes anxiety and confusion and even depression too,” she says. Still, Greenberg encourages people not to feel pressure to do anything differently during this unprecedented time. “Try to stay the course. Take care of yourself. This is not necessarily a time to be productive.”

Rather than focusing on all that’s changed from this time a year ago to today, Hartstein says that its best for people to remind themselves of what remains the same.

“So much is different. And yet, here we are, back at school, back to learning, ready for this next step. Find some routines that help promote this sense of normalcy, too,” she explains. “Validate that it can be overwhelming and scary and still good. Slow down and breathe, reminding yourself that all things continue to shift and change and that, eventually, we’ll be back at a carefree time.”

In the meantime, Hartstein says that markers of time can actually be a good thing, despite them bringing up uneasy feelings. “It shows us that things continue to move and aren’t frozen in time. We are able to recognize how things have changed, stayed the same and what might still need our attention. Time keeps on moving and we have to continue to move and grow with it, even when it seems the world is on pause.”

For the latest coronavirus news and updates, follow along at https://news.yahoo.com/coronavirus. According to experts, people over 60 and those who are immunocompromised continue to be the most at risk. If you have questions, please reference the CDC’s and WHO’s resource guides.

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