It’s almost time to say goodbye to the lazy, hazy days of summer. Heading back to school can create stress. Busy schedules, academic pressure, and lack of sleep can raise anxiety levels. Furthermore, we have less time to relax and connect with each other.
With that in mind, here are some strategies to help the whole family stay in a vacation state of mind.
Build a resilience toolkit.
Resilience is our ability to bounce back from difficult events or emotions. Consequently, the more resilient we are, the more we can handle the stress of the busy school year. Fortunately, there are ways to build our resilience.
Here are the four essential elements of a “resilience toolkit.”
- Optimism: Psychologist Barbara Fredrickson found that resilient people don’t get bogged down in negative thinking. Her research found that maintaining a three-to-one ratio of positive to negative emotions builds resilience. We can improve our ratio by learning to pay more attention to positive events. Instead of focusing on the one thing that went wrong today, try appreciating three things that went right.
- Strengths: Use your strengths to address obstacles that arise. If you’re good at logical thinking, use reason to figure out your problem. If you’re creative, use that ability to find your way around a roadblock.
- Gratitude: Researcher Robert Emmons confirmed the link between gratitude and well-being. In one study, people who wrote lists of things they were grateful for had higher levels of well-being. Try writing down three things you’re grateful for at the end of each day.
- Connection: Reach out for support in dealing with tough issues. Connect with experts who know how to address your problem (teachers, bosses, mentors); people who have experienced what you’re going through (such as slightly older peers); and the people who will have your back no matter what.
Change the way you think about stress.
There’s no way around it: Life creates stress, to one degree or another. And the school year typically brings with it a wide range of stressors. The question is: Can we look at stress in a new, more positive way?
Stress can serve as fuel to help us get things done. A Harvard study found that people who viewed stress as a motivation for better performance did better on tests and managed their stress better than those who tried to ignore their stress.
However, it’s essential to take “stress breaks”—times when you consciously relax and release tension throughout the day. The whole family can take a stress break together, and each individual family member can come up with their own preferred ways to de-stress.
Five Ways to Take a Mini Stress Break
- Do a yoga pose called Legs Up the Wall: Lie on the floor with your legs straight up, at a right angle to the rest of your body, with your feet resting on a wall. Stay in the pose, breathing slowly and gently, for two or three minutes.
- Take a mindful walk: Walk around the block or around your house, observing all the details of your surroundings. Notice the colors, the smells, the sounds, and how the air and sun feel on your skin.
- While you’re sitting at your desk, soak your feet in a basin of warm water if the weather is cool, or in cool water if it’s hot out.
- Buy small bottles of your favorite scents and keep them nearby for refreshing aromatherapy breaks.
- In the middle of doing a very focused task, put on a fast song and get up and dance!
Use the breath to help navigate life challenges.
Research shows that breath awareness is one of the most effective and accessible tools for self-regulation and calming the nervous system. Breathing slowly, while you focus on each inhale and exhale, activates the parasympathetic nervous system (the “rest and digest” or “calm and connect” system). Therefore, the sympathetic nervous system (the “fight, flight or freeze” system) takes a step back.
Consciously focusing on our breath helps us navigate the tension that arises in the mind and body when life gets hard. Hence, the breath can be a powerful vehicle for carrying us through challenging emotions and situations. For teens during the school year, that might be a high school math test, sports practice, a music recital, a first date, or a confrontation with peers.
Breathing practices “shift the stress-response system into a healthier balance by activating the healing, recharging part of the nervous system while quieting the defensive, energy-burning parts.”
—Richard P. Brown and Patricia L. Gerbarg, authors of The Healing Power of the Breath
Easy Breathing Practice
- Sit comfortably, with feet on the floor, eyes closed and hands relaxed and resting on your thighs.
- Breathe in slowly through your nose. As your lungs fill, let your chest and belly expand. You might try counting up to five, seven or whatever feels comfortable. Or focus on a phrase, such as “Breathing in calm” or simply “Breathing in.”
- Breathe out slowly through either nose or mouth, whichever feels more natural. You can count during the exhalation, making sure the exhale is as long or longer than the inhale, or use a phrase, such as “Breathing out calm” or simply “Breathing out.”
- If you get distracted, bring your mind back to focusing on the breath.
- Repeat for several minutes.
- Notice how you feel. Is your body more relaxed than before you started? Is your mind calmer?
Eat healthy meals together.
The busy school-year schedule can keep the family apart. Everyone has someplace to be or something to do. Make a point of eating together at least one or two nights during the week. Moreover, turn off all devices while you’re eating, so you can focus on the food and each other. Meals are a great time to connect and for each family member to share what’s been going on in their day and their week.
What you eat is also important. Healthy food choices can help the whole family maintain energy and well-being. Furthermore, the following nutrients have been shown to have a powerful positive impact on mood and mental health.
- Omega-3 fatty acids: found in salmon, sardines, anchovies, walnuts
- Tyrosine and tryptophan: found in turkey, eggs, beets, artichokes, seaweed, spinach, bananas, cheese, beans
- Vitamin D: found in sardines, cod liver oil, eggs
- Vitamin B: found in dark leafy greens, bell peppers, mushrooms, tomatoes, cauliflower, broccoli, tomatoes
- Folic acid: found in green vegetables, citrus fruit, nuts, sprouts, whole-wheat bread
- Magnesium: found in seaweed, beans, leafy greens
What you don’t eat is also important, especially when it comes to sugar. Scientists now point to the consumption of sugar as one of the biggest threats to human health—and that includes mental health. Sugar and sugar additives have been linked to depression, addictive behavior, anxiety, memory loss, and cognitive ability.
In the hustle and bustle of the school year, real communication can fall by the wayside. It’s hard enough to keep each other updated on the logistics, not to mention having meaningful conversations.
However, it’s vital for parents to find time to talk with their kids. An ongoing, meaningful connection between kids and parents is one of the most powerful factors in supporting teen mental and physical health. Furthermore, this is expressed through communication in which teens open up with parents about what they’re thinking and feeling. Hence, a deeper connection is established. Therefore, we must apply tools to talk to teens in a thoughtful way.
When talking with your teen, it’s helpful to pay attention to their nonverbal communication, as well as what they say. Often, the words that come out of our mouths aren’t expressing the emotions that really underlie them. Pay close attention not only to the content of a conversation, but also to your teen’s body language and tone.
Make sure the whole family gets their Zs in.
For most adolescents, nine hours of sleep is ideal, but very few of them are actually managing that. One study conducted by the Centers for Disease Control showed that less than nine percent of teens get enough, and the amount of rest they get decreases as they progress through high school.
- Unplug before bed. Make sure everyone turns off their computers and cellphones at a fixed time each night to help their brains wind down and get ready for rest.
- Do relaxing activities before bed to promote peaceful sleep. Instead of using technology, try reading, taking a bath or shower, listening to quiet music, writing in a journal, or meditating.
- Don’t let teens sleep too late on weekends. Teens should not wake up more than two hours later than the time when they normally get up on weekdays. Sleeping till noon and then staying up late will throw off a teen’s resting schedule for the rest of the week.
- Keep the bedroom dark and cool. All lights in the room should be off when the teen is sleeping. In addition, keep the room cool. The body prepares for sleep by lowering its internal temperature, and a cool room can encourage that process.
- Avoid late-night snacks. Teens should stop snacking at least an hour before bed and avoid caffeine after 4:00 pm.
Learn the difference between normal back-to-school anxiety and teen anxiety disorder.
Being anxious before a big test or nervous before a game is a normal part of growing up. However, there is a significant difference between temporary anxiety and a teen anxiety disorder.
Six Signs of Teen Anxiety Disorder
- Performance dip in school, poor report cards, poor testing results
- Loss of interest in activities they used to enjoy, noticeable drop in social interactions
- Trouble sleeping at night, exhaustion for no apparent reason, always worn down
- Loss of appetite and eating disturbances, inability to enjoy meals once favored
- Substance use disorder, using drugs and drinking as forms of self-medication
- Avoiding people, places and things that trigger the anxious feelings
If your teen exhibits these signs, a professional assessment may be the proper next step. Holistic, compassionate treatment can help teens recover from anxiety disorders and live happy, healthy lives.
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