Going back to school or to university can be a daunting time. It is different from going back to work after a holiday in that when going back to work we are going back to a familiar environment; we know what to expect. Going back to school is not really going back at all, even if you are not at a new school. You will usually have different teachers, who shares classes with you will have changed and on top of that you have new material to learn. Doing well the previous year is no guarantee you will be able to do well this year. It is not surprising children and young people find it hard to return to education after the summer. Going back is a bundle of stressors (life events that cause worry or stress) that hit all at once.
As human beings there are a few things we find quite threatening. In the developed world most of the truly dangerous ones have been eliminated and we are left with some that are hard to manage: fear of the unknown, fear of failure and fear of being rejected by a social group. In young people the last one is painful; in a very literal sense. The reason for this has deep evolutionary roots. As smart as people are we need a group to survive. This is less true now than it used to be thanks to the societies we have formed, but thousands of years ago you either found a group to belong to or you would die. In particular as a young person you needed to establish links with your peers or you would not have a family and you would not have a clan to help you out in dire times. This is soo deeply etched into our genes that a study published in Science in 2003 by Naomi Eisenberg and colleagues found that social rejection activates the same brain regions as physical pain does.
The fear of social rejection added to the fear of failure and the fear of the unknown can make going back to class quite the harrowing experience; but what can be done to cope?
- Understand where it is coming from: just realising that it is quite normal to feel the way you feel and to realise where it comes from can help you manage it. All those thoughts that pop into your head come pre-installed in your brain and you need to challenge them.
- Make the unknown less unknown: See if you can go back to school before you go back to school if you know what I mean. Go back to the area before school starts and familiarise yourself with it. Get ready ahead of time, plan your journey to school and get as comfortable with the idea as possible.
- Failure, what failure?: It is not good for anybody to have a very long break from school work. You don't need to make huge sacrifices, but reading through what you will be expected to learn and going on Khan Academy or similar sites to watch some videos and do some exercies can help you reduce massively your fear of failure and boost your confidence. You are still on time to do this. Also you need to see this as a process, not a fail/pass situation. You did not succeed the first time you tried to ride a bicycle, swim or kick a ball; why would maths be any different? Try again until you get there, it is not about being 'smart' it is about working hard and falling off a few times.
- Think differently about rejection: your brain physically hurts when you feel rejected, as I explained there is not much one can do about that as it comes with being a young person trying to find a group to belong to. You need to realise if for what it is and you need to overcome it. Even if you are not getting on with people at school, there will be other groups in your area that will accept you. Look for clubs of people with interests similar to yours or volunteer for a youth organisation.
Apart from these things you can learn self-soothing techniques that will help you combat your nerves both short and long term. Examples of these are breathing techniques, muscle relaxation or mindfulness. You can also train yourself to catch and combat those negative thoughts. Our app Feel Stress Free offers these techniques and more. You may want to give it a go.