Even at my current age, I get this sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach as the days get shorter and the cool fall weather hits. Every year it’s like I am taken back to being a child waiting for the school bus. It’s a feeling like I need to vomit but don’t understand why. Once I would get on the bus and make it to school, things would get better. Now decades later, after years of being an educator, I realized I was having school anxiety.
How can I be transported back some 40 years ago each time the weather changes and September rolls around? How can I still experience the same feeling in the pit of my stomach? I have to remind myself I am the principal, not the student anymore. I have to tell myself I don't have to feel this way about going to school. However, sometimes our triggers stay with us throughout our lives.
It took me a long time to conceptualize “triggers.” Fortunately, mental health has been highlighted so much more now compared to the 70’s and 80’s. Back then, I don’t know that anyone would’ve been able to identify that feeling in the pit of my stomach as school anxiety. It’s an anxiety born from anticipating fearful comments from peers, not being accepted into social groups, or feeling inadequate in the classroom. As a student, these fears and worries would engulf me. The cool weather triggers these feelings for me to this day. It's amazing how strong triggers can be.
School anxiety and separation anxiety are real. And, they are really, really tough. Fortunately, there are a lot more options for kids in school these days. Kiddos can attend school virtually or in-person. When my daughter was going into kindergarten, she was elated and couldn’t wait to get homework. My other daughter (raised by the same biological parents, mind you) had tremendous separation anxiety. I would get ready in the morning, and she would hang on to me crying and saying, “I love you! I love you!” She would be pleading for me not to leave her. It was so hard to watch. It was also rather difficult to understand because I had worked every single day of my children’s lives, and she had gone to daycare for five years. Why all this anxiety all of a sudden?
I ended up taking her to therapy, and we tried some different strategies to help ease her school/separation anxiety. At age 5, we tried putting colorful pom-poms in my pocket and hers to keep with us throughout the day. When she would miss me, she would rub the pom-pom and know that it was a connection to me. Of course, I would do the same for her. When that strategy became less effective, we had matching bracelets to remind us of each other throughout the day.
After a few sessions, the therapist told me the anxiety would probably ease up when she turned 6 years old. Remarkably, she was right! When my daughter turned 6, she was over her anxiety and went to school with no issue. Elementary school years were better than middle school years. One of her triggers was riding the bus to middle school. It was complete torture for her. We were able to help her tackle some of that anxiety by taking her to school a couple days per week. Some things were so difficult you can’t put a Band-Aid on them, so therapy continued to help support her emotional state. We created worry jars where she picked a container, wrote her worries on a piece of paper, and put them in the jar so she didn’t have to worry about them anymore. We bought worry dolls, so she could give her worries to the doll who would take care of them for her. We bought journals and wrote in them at night. We found time to bond by choosing activities just for the two of us to do together. I don’t know if we solved the anxiety issue, but we were able to recognize it and try different methods to cope.
As an adult, I look back on those moments and am grateful we shared them. She still uses many of the strategies as coping mechanisms when her anxiety arises. Triggers and anxiety are real. Finding solutions to calm oneself during those times can be challenging but necessary. If you are struggling with anxiety and triggers, do your best to take care of yourself. Control what you can by removing the trigger, and then find the right strategy for you.
What I have learned: Triggers can stick around for a long time; keep working through them.
Tania Farran is an educator, mom, business owner, and an author. Her blogs tell about balancing all of these things in life! Laugh or cry with her and maybe learn a thing or two.