What to Know About Back-to-School Mental Health

August 29, 2022

Lajward Zahra 

As summer’s idle dog days wane, thousands of students across El Paso will be returning to school in August and September. For most students, this is an expected transition they will begrudgingly adjust our sleep schedules to. However, for many other students, returning to school is also a cause for more than just disappointment that summer is over. It’s also a cause for worry, panic, anxiety and even fear, that luckily, can be managed using good mental health hygiene.  

As diagnosis of anxiety and depression increase for teens, it is important for schools, parents, and teen’s themselves to be cognizant about mental health. I sat down with El Paso psychologist, Dr. Justin Kepple, to learn what anxiety really means and what we can do about it. 

Understanding Anxiety

Because there are many understandings about anxiety, scientific and colloquial, the process of determining exactly what anxiety is and its causes is complex. Clinical anxiety and diagnosing it is an incredibly scientific process and guided by a dense textbook, the DSM-5, that Dr. Kepple is referred to as the “psychologist’s Bible.” 

However, what more of us are familiar with is what Dr. Kepple refers to as the “colloquial understanding of anxiety,” a mixture of stress, worry, fear, and panic.  Those are all “a cluster of symptoms to describe this biological response” to a stressful situation. The biological response is shaking, nervousness, and increased heart rate known as physiological anxiety. 

Then there’s cognitive anxiety which manifests as the “what if” thought patterns and the worry. 

Starting at the core, fight-or-flight response is basic human programming that helps us understand why anxiety manifests in those two ways. “From our caveman days, even further back, we didn’t have horns or plated skin. We didn’t spit venom. We didn’t do anything cool to protect ourselves against those big, bad Sabretooth tigers, so we developed this [fight-or-flight] system to assess, identify and then respond to threats,” says Dr. Kepple. 

The fight-or-flight response is responsible for that physiological response because that “huge surge of survival energy” when confronted with a stressor is what elevates our heart and respiratory rates to make us better equipped to fend off those Sabretooth tigers. Most famously, the fight or flight response creates a surge of adrenaline.  

Managing Anxiety at School

In school, we are confronted with stressors that we can’t fight or flee so this response has no outlet. The adrenaline that has nowhere to go makes us shaky and nervous. Dr. Kepple illustrates a scenario: “For example, you get called on to read and you weren’t paying attention and you’re like they’re like ‘Oh, man’.  So, your palms get all sweaty, you’re breathing heavily, elevated heart rate, your face turns red, and all that good stuff. That is just your body saying ‘here you go, human, here’s all the energy you will ever need to fight or flight your problems.’  But how do you fight or fly in that kind of situation? You can’t go and beat up the teacher for calling on you to read and you can’t just run out the door and not read.”  

This turns us essentially into a “human pressure cooker.”  Then, of course, our brain develops thinking patterns to prepare us for situations that elicit this response and that’s where that cognitive anxiety comes in. 

While this in-depth explanation did give me a new perspective on anxiety, I was curious whether back-to-school affects the intensity of human InstaPot moments. The answer was similarly complex and “really depends on specific variables” according to Dr. Kepple. He sees many adolescent patients and notes that the COVID-19 pandemic, and the continued shift from online school back to in-person school could be a “huge, huge” concern for students.  

Additionally, the fact that many students were doing online school during that “important phase of social development” is an added factor that impacts students’ back-to-school anxiety and their ability to contend with it. Furthermore, with all the new COVID-19 variants, the politics of mask wearing add anxiety to mask wearing. If you choose to wear your mask, are you going to be associated with one side of the political spectrum or the other? 

Taking a Head-On Approach to Mental Health

Questions about intensity lead to how anxiety can very easily turn into depression. Anxiety and depression often precipitate one another. Constant anxiety can basically “create a state where the body says, ‘alright human, I’ve let you take the reins long enough; it’s my turn to take over and keep you safe,’” explains Dr. Kepple. 

Your body puts you in a low state of functioning as a way of protection and self-preservation. You have less desire to go out and be social and “you want to retreat and hibernate.” That avoidance is essentially depression.  “What we should be looking out for is when you find yourself avoiding things that you need to face head on.”   

Even facing things head-on, when analyzed, has complex effects. While anxiety makes you view everything through what Dr. Kepple calls “survival goggles” that make problems appear overly scary and exaggerated, facing things makes us recalibrate and reassess our perspective on the stressor.  

Our brains remember that the stressor was not as bad as it had originally anticipated and adjust our reaction the next time that we are confronted with it. 

Model Behavior

Furthermore, Dr. Kepple suggests that parents seeking to prevent or help with anxiety in their children should model that behavior themselves. 

“The way children learn to deal with the world is initially modeled by their parents, right? But as you get older, you have TV and social media and friends and school,” he says. 

How Schools Can Help

These other influences, especially school and friends, can also have a beneficial impact when teaching students how to deal with anxiety. Schools especially can mitigate back-to-school anxiety. 

Schools that promote inclusivity greatly help with back-to-school anxiety as much of it stems from not feeling comfortable or safe. Schools that also offer a variety of clubs and organizations where everyone can find their niche will also see less anxiety among their students. 

According to Dr. Kepple, “really fostering that connection of social support is one of the main ways that we cope with psychological distress across the board.” He also notes that taking the time to teach students stress management skills such as deep breathing, grounding, mindfulness, and promoting physical activity will help student anxiety.  

He likens these practices to “literally brushing your teeth. From a very early age we’re taught up, down, left, right, two times every day. We are rarely taught ‘this is how you mitigate stress.’”  

But it can be done and there are many resources available to students for help.

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