Coping for Back to School

By Gaan Akers, LPC, NCC | July 20, 2020

Going back to school this year feels daunting. With so many rapidly changing factors, one thing seems to stay constant- the stress. During this crisis, many of us are feeling continually overwhelmed which can be detrimental to our physical and mental health. It is a natural response to feel anxious when so much of what is going on in the world is outside of our control. The truth is, we all are already responding to the crisis in our own ways and some responses are more effective than others! Morningside based non-profit, Hillside, provides mental health care to children and their families. This month, our clinical team would like to offer some practical ways to deal with the negative effects stress is having on our bodies.  By developing healthy coping skills, we can approach situations that invoke worry thoughts and strong emotions, like going back to school, more clearly and calmly.

Our bodies get worn down by chronic stress. While short bouts of fear and anxiety are helpful in select situations, compounded day-to-day stress accumulates and negatively impacts your physical and mental health.  Have you found yourself more agitated lately? Does your child wake up in the middle of the night or are they having trouble concentrating on a specific task? This might be an indicator of stress and other typical symptoms can include trouble sleeping, irritability, bad decision making, and problems concentrating. Fortunately, this out-of-balance state can be alleviated by utilizing healthy coping skills.  Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT), an evidence-based treatment modality, teaches individuals how to create a more balanced lifestyle by using effective skills to tolerate distress and regulate emotions. “Cope Ahead” is one of the skills that can be very helpful in reducing stress ahead of time as you prepare to enter into emotionally charged situations.

Coping Ahead is a form of preventative care and allows us to consider how we might prepare for any stressful events. You have most likely already used this skill without realizing- meal prepping, making notes before a presentation, or bringing a first aid kit to a family outing are all examples of coping ahead. Within the context of the pandemic, there are specific ways you can cope ahead of a stressful situation, especially when navigating going back-to-school. We recommend developing a set of coping skills for you and your family. Below are 5 steps for Coping Ahead.

1. Describe the specific problem situation. Are you worried about your child keeping a mask on at school? Start coping ahead by practicing how to wear a mask now. This can help them get used to the sensation and know what to expect ahead of time. You can start with short amounts of time and work up to what would be expected for the school day. This also gives you the opportunity to problem solve issues that may come up and figure out the barriers to your child comfortably wearing a mask. The fabric, scent, fit, or heat may be the determining factor to address. Once you know the specific problem, work to identify a solution or skill they can use in real-time.

2. Decide what skills to use. Do you feel anxious thinking about going to the grocery store? Does your child get agitated knowing they have to do school work? Consider what will make you feel better in the moment you will experience the negative emotion. Below are some skills to try in these stressful moments.

  • Practice paced breathing. Breathing deeply sends a message to your brain that you are safe, which will lower your stress response. Practice inhaling in for 5 counts, holding, and then exhaling for 7 counts. Repeat this for at least a minute and practice with the family.
  • Avoid doing things that can cause unnecessary stress. Does reading the news throughout the day send your thoughts spiraling? Create a plan for how/when you will check the news from reliable sources.
  • Create a self-sooth kit. Everyone in the family should have toolbox of coping skills. For children, having a kit with soothing tactile items could help them self-manage throughout the day. In a small pouch collect items they enjoy. Play dough, something with a calming scent, a coloring book, or a picture of their favorite pet are example of items they can use. Physical distractions can help them manage anxious thoughts.

3. Imagine. Now that you know the situation and the skill you will use, imagine the situation in your mind as vividly as possible. Imagine it happening in the present, not the past. Bring details to mind: Where are you? Who is around you? What are you thinking or feeling?

4. Rehearse coping in your mind. Once you’re in the situation, practice coping effectively. Use the breathing technique or pick up an item from your self-sooth box. Picture what you will do and rehearse coping with the stressor.

5. Practice relaxing after rehearsing. Thinking about and rehearsing a hard situation can be stressful on your psyche and body. Take a minute to relax after you’ve run through all the steps. Take a deep breath or stretch before you move on.

This is a stressful time for all of us. By Coping Ahead we are able to anticipate how our body will respond to a situation and practice how to offset that stress. Want more information about DBT or getting help? Follow us on social media @HillsideATL or sign up for our newsletter for more tips about managing mental health at


  • Hillside Clinical Education & Referral Relations Manager - Gaan has been working with children, adolescents, and families for over 10 years in various settings. In her current role, she provides education and training for mental health professionals, parents, and the community. She lives in Atlanta with her husband. In her free time, she enjoys reading, hiking, climbing, and cooking. She is a donut aficionado and a national park enthusiast!

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