“Back to School” (sigh)

Written by Chloe Pilkerton, UD Class of 2021, Former Sean’s House Peer

When you hear the phrase “back to school”, what thoughts and feelings arise? For me, I hold my breath a bit and start to have an uneasy feeling in my stomach; a place where my anxiety often manifests. I think about the previous experiences I’ve had at school and I quickly become caught up in the negatives. 

Although it can be an exciting time, it is one that brings many challenges for students. From grades to social pressures, school can be detrimental to one’s mental health. However, it can also be a place of immense personal growth. 

Eighth grade was a rough time for me. At that point in our lives, we’re still figuring out who we are and it’s a difficult process when our looks are constantly changing and the levels of expectations for us are rising. We are easily influenced by peers and most of us want to fit in so that we have a sense of belonging. And right as we get settled into middle school life, high school is around the corner to bring additional challenges and opportunities for us to experience.

In middle school, I chose to allow my parents, peers, and teachers to define who I was. Subscribing to this ideology provided me with comfort and even joy as I was praised for being a “high achiever”, “responsible”, and “mature for my age”, although I never really made many of my own decisions. I did things that would result in praise, which I couldn’t get enough of. My self-esteem was directly correlated with how many compliments I received. 

I worried about my ability to make new friends and fit in socially. Not to mention the AP/IB level classes and new environment I would have to adjust to. I feared letting down my teachers and parents by not getting all A’s or not being a top performer in my extracurricular activities. I wanted to homeschool because I thought that meant that I could hide from these potential problems.

My mental health in 8th grade declined rapidly as all of these fears loomed over my head. This pressure stemmed from the expectation that high school classes were going to be more difficult than the classes I had previously taken. High school is the last step before college and/or a career and I wasn’t handling this fact very well.

To me, if I received below an A in any of my middle school classes, that predicted that I wasn’t cut out for the difficulty of high school classes. Furthermore, if I did poorly in high school, then I wouldn’t get into college or achieve my ambitious career goals.

I lived my life in the future, and thinking ahead to adulthood was too much for me to handle. This transition from middle school to high school was very much about my fear of failure. I felt as though I had something to prove because my plan was to go to veterinary school after college and I doubted myself. Instead of proving to myself that I was smart and driven enough to achieve my goals, I decided to try and prove this to others. Of course, this left me feeling unfulfilled because I was living out my dream for someone else.

Transitioning from middle school to high school was no easy feat. I was trying to maintain the status quo while growing out of friends, habits, and routines that no longer contributed positively to my mental and physical health. I struggled with people-pleasing tendencies and I realized how this affected my life. I wanted to change, but these decisions meant that I was becoming a new person that I, myself, needed time to get to know. 

The year before high school was when I started to go to therapy. Before this, I kept my emotions hidden and tried not to ask for help so that I wouldn’t be perceived as weak or incapable. I expected to be invalidated after sharing my thoughts and emotions. As a result, I belittled my own emotions by telling myself that I was overreacting. 

During therapy sessions, I felt safe enough to open up and allow my emotions to pour out. I learned how to feel and express my emotions in a healthy way and stopped assuming that feelings are facts. What helped me the most was learning my thought patterns and triggers for my anxiety. I started to be able to realize when I was becoming anxious and anticipate situations that could trigger my anxiety. Understanding my behaviors, thoughts, and feelings was the main thing that I focused on with my therapist. 

After a long year of self-discovery, I could now observe my emotions, feel them, and let them go. I knew that leading up to a social event, my stomach would hurt and that it was better for me to practice deep breathing and attend that event rather than avoiding social situations all together. I didn’t take as much personally and could stop myself when I realized that I was replacing my own reality with someone else’s. 

My advice to anyone who struggles with transitions is this: connect with yourself. Identify what about this transition creates anxiety for you and write it down. What are you scared of and how might you overcome these challenges? Who will you reach out to in these times of need? Become aware of your thoughts and keep in mind that these thoughts might be lying to you. Does Samantha really think that your question was stupid or are you just insecure about your abilities in that class? 

Find an outlet and turn to that when you feel overwhelmed, uninspired, self-conscious, or down. I make sure that I walk at least 30 minutes a day to clear my head. I frequently listen to music because it gives me a break from reality when it’s too much to handle. Additionally, I’ve found that art is meditative for me and so I draw, paint, or color when I need to relax or calm down. I take deep breaths before stressful events and sometimes during them as well. 

All of this self-regulation has allowed me to become happier with my reality now that I understand it better. I have added these outlets to my routine and I even included them in my Google calendar. Embracing change is not easy, but I feel increasingly confident in my ability to adapt now that I’m more connected with myself.