Got back-to-school anxiety?

Tips for keeping your anxious brain in check

Posted on January 13, 2022 by PROJECT ROCKIT

With millions of young Aussies heading back-to-school in coming weeks, if you’re feeling anxious about what lies ahead then you’re certainly not alone. Anxiety is a relatively common experience, but when it’s happening to you it can feel like life is spiralling out of control. While we might feel like withdrawing or staying home, this can often make it even harder in the long run.

We’ve put together 8 simple tips to help you manage school-related anxiety and kick off the year feeling strong:

1. Stop beating yourself up and give your brain a gold star instead

When you’re experiencing any kind of mental health challenges, beating yourself up only makes it worse. Also, let’s take a moment to remember that your brain is incredible.

An animated gif of a human brain with a face drawn over it. The brain has legs and it's doing a little jig.

When your brain detects any possible threat to your wellbeing, it instantly reacts by charging your body with the adrenaline, oxygen and strength for you to quickly take action and keep yourself safe. This starts in a tiny part of your brain called the ‘amygdala’ which sends lightning-fast signals out to your whole body. That’s why you might suddenly feel on edge, or hyped up, and ready to fight or run (take flight). In dangerous situations this is really useful, like if you were confronted by an out-of-control orangutan that escaped from the zoo and is running towards you screaming.

But in less-extreme situations, sometimes your brain is a little overprotective and it might detect discomfort or worry and put your whole body on red-alert. If you’ve had negative experiences that you associate with school, your brain may think that school itself is a threat. And that’s why anxiety about school can be such a powerful force to overcome. The good news is, we can work with our own brains to keep our anxiety in check.

2. Deal with the physical symptoms

Sometimes anxiety can play out in physical ways, like an upset stomach, shortness of breath, a racing heart or a headache.

Quiz Time!

Do you experience anxiety only in your thoughts or in your body too?

It's only in my thoughts

I feel it in my body as well

Try doing some slow breathing exercises, practicing mindfulness, or getting some low-key exercise. These are all helpful ways to start feeling better in your body again. Remember that you need to be kind to your mind and body so avoid hardcore exercise and stick with gentle activities. And if you’re still feeling sick, make sure you get checked out by a doctor!

3. Check in with yourself emotionally

Try to work out exactly what emotions you’re feeling give yourself a clear picture of what’s happening in your head.

A word cloud with the title 'negative emotions' at the centre. Branching out from there are the following emotions: frustration, sadness, shame, fear, grief, guilt, sadness, depression, despair, envy, doubt, jealousy
You could draw it as a picture, make a word cloud (like the one above) or write it out in one long flow of words.

4. Try to find the underlying cause

While it isn’t always possible to pin down the reason why you’re anxious about going back to school, doing so might just be the first step in having your worries heard.

These are some common reasons why people feel anxious about going to school:

  • being bullied
  • feeling like you don’t fit in or don’t belong anywhere at school
  • friendship dramas or a lack of friendships
  • difficulties learning in class
  • fear of getting in trouble
  • not getting along with a particular teacher
  • struggling with all the change happening in the world around you

Do any of these worries sound like they apply to you?

5. Let someone know

Hopefully you’ve managed to work out how you feel and what’s causing your anxiety. The next step is to get it out of your head. If you can, pick someone at home and someone at school who you can talk to about what you’re going through – that way you’re creating as much support around you as you can.

For example,

When I think about going back to school, I feel really scared and lonely and I think it might be because I don’t really fit in anywhere with the people at school”

If you’re struggling to find the words, try this format: “When I think about going back to school I feel >insert feeling<, and I think it might be because >insert reason<”

6. Set up routines and plans

Creating routines and plans might sound boring, but that’s exactly the point! Here are some of the ways you can make going to school feel much more predictable and under control:

  • Packing your bag the night before
  • Laying out your clothes so you don’t have to worry about that in the morning
  • Setting an alarm (or multiple alarms if you’re that kind of person!)
  • Making sure you get enough sleep
  • Arranging someone to meet when you get to school
  • Working out who you could talk to or what to do if you are struggling once you get to school
  • Setting up something to look forward to at the end of the week

Animated gif of a thumbs up duplicating into more thumbs ups!

7. Do a practice run

This is another great way to make the unknown feel much more familiar, especially if you catch public transport to school. Grab your bag, headphones and head into school a week before everyone else does.

If it really helps, you can even pick your own pump-up anthem so build up your confidence as you enter the school gates! By doing this ahead of time, there’s less unknown for your anxious brain to worry about.

8. Find someone who can bring out the lighter side of school

Anxiety has a way of zooming in on all the little things that could possibly go wrong. And the reality is, sometimes things do go wrong but often they make for a good story.

We created this ‘awkward school moments’ bingo game to help you see the lighter side. Try it out with a friend and see how many awkward moments you have in common. Pretty sure everyone you know will have a story or two to share…

A bingo board grid with the heading "AWKWARD SCHOOL MOMENTS BINGO. Each of the 24 squares contains an embarrassing moment as follows:1. Calling your teacher 'mum' by mistake2. Toilet paper stuck to your shoe3. Realising 10 mins in that you're in the wrong class4. When you walk into a pole5. Being called on in class when you weren't listening6. Getting stage fright in your class presentation7. Sitting in a quiet room with a growling stomach8. Bumping into your teacher outside of school9. Face-planting in front of your crush10. Realising that your clothes are inside out11. Being busted talking to yourself in the bathroom mirror12. When your phone rings during school assembly13. Forgetting to lock the bathroom cubicle door14. Waving back at someone who was waving at someone else15. Taking a sip from your water bottle but missing your mouth16. Waving to open a door that isn't actually automatic17. Getting swooped by a magpie and screaming in terror18. Talking asleep in class and then waking up startled19. Accidentally signing off a message to a teacher with a kiss (x)20. When you remember a funny joke in class and can't stop laughing21. Having food in your teeth ALL day and no one tells you22. Dressing in costume for a theme day on the wrong day23. When the teacher says to partner up and you're left over24. Going in for a hug when they were going in for a handshake

If you or a loved one are in need of professional support, head to our ‘Get help’ page to connect with our recommended support services.