For some youngsters, September can be a source of trauma. The return to school can mean the prospect of scary assignments and scarier bullies — a prospect that translates into serious, debilitating unease.
But kids aren’t alone in their end-of-summer disquiet, according to psychologists. Back-to-school season, it turns out, can bring dread that lasts a lifetime.
“I see it all the time with my patients. A lot of the time they’re not even aware of it because they’ve been out of school for so long,” said Dr. Oren Amitay, a Toronto psychologist and lecturer at Ryerson University.
“You’ve spent so many years with this pattern, from the earliest days, so it’s really ingrained.”
Essentially, as Amitay explains, the waning days of summer can “trigger” the childhood anxiety that people experienced when their holidays were ending and they had to return to the classroom. That feeling can echo into adulthood, recurring every fall when school buses begin rolling again.
“People really lament all the things they hadn’t done in the summer,” said Amitay, describing the crunch of time as a source of this mental discomfort. “That transition (to fall) can be distressing.”
Anna Baranowsky, a psychologist, said that the lingering pain of back-to-school memories typically affects people who experienced real trauma as children during that time of year, whether it was through teasing at school or immense academic pressure.
“Those kind of things get wired in your system ... It can absolutely reignite strong feelings.”
Parents can also feed off the nervousness of their children or vice versa, Amitay added, creating a cycle of anxiety. And with the shortening days and cooler weather, any back-to-school blues can get exacerbated by the depression that can accompany autumn and winter, known as seasonal affective disorder.
“Just the fact that the days are longer and the traffic is often lighter. People are more relaxed,” said Tally Bodenstein-Kales, a psychologist for the Toronto District School Board who also has a private practice, referring to the benefits of summer. “And then, when the summer goes by and comes to an end, then we’re thinking, ‘Oh my God, all the pressure is going to return.’ ”
“There’s an air of unspoken tension that some people may be feeling.”
So, if you’re a person who gets down when the school supplies go on sale, what do you do?
Amitay said the first step is to acknowledge your feelings. After that, it might be a good idea to schedule some fun events in the last months of the year, maybe save some vacation or throw a big party so there’s more to look forward to than Christmas shopping or an ice storm.
For Bodenstein-Kales, there’s also something much more obvious that can help.
“What we need to do is take some slow, nice deep breaths,” she said, “and remember that we’re not going back to school.”
Yes there’s back-to-school blues, but what else triggers anxiety in grown-ups?
Heart attack anniversary
Toronto psychologist Sam Klarreich said he’s seen many patients who become uptight and nervous near the anniversary of a traumatic event such as a heart attack. Similar weather and rhythms of life serve as reminders of the source of anxiety, he explained.
“People get all kinds of flashbacks,” he said. “It’s going to pop back as if it almost happened yesterday.”
Much like heading back to school, starting a new job can be a big source of anxiety, especially if someone hasn’t worked in a while. Klarreich suggests that even if someone has only been away on vacation, he should come back a few days early to get back into his normal routine and mentally prepare to get back on the job.
“If they don’t prepare for it, it’s going to be an awkward, awkward sensation.”
Klarreich said he gets a lot of patients who are confused about being unhappy in the early months of married life. This is because sometimes people don’t expect the freedoms and routines of singlehood to change or they disappear when they shack up with a significant other.
“There’s no question that certain people are worried. . . . Everything’s strange, very awkward and it just doesn’t feel right.”