Tools For Managing School Anxiety

Post By Amanda Polster, LMSW

Test, essays, project deadlines, pop quiz! Whether you’re in high school or college, managing a rigorous schedule can cause a lot anxiety. People experience school anxiety in different forms - test anxiety, difficulty studying, trouble focusing which leads to procrastination. Anxiety is the most common mental health challenge of children, teens, and adults in the United States. (1)

Some stress is actually necessary (and can be helpful) for students. . Performance anxiety can actually motive us to prepare and focus harder to achieve our high expectations. The stress of poor performance can encourage us to study longer or prepare harder for say… a presentation worth 30% of our grade. This type of stress is called eustress - the feeling good stress! Eustress can actually help boost motivation, focus, and energy, and can improve overall performance and decision making. (2)

You’re probably thinking, “why do I not usually feel good when I’m stressed?” Eustress is often short-term in nature and only occurs when we are able to rationalize and organize the tasks we have to complete without feeling a sense of overwhelm. And…dondadadon! This is where distress seeps in. Distress is the experience of stress that feels like overwhelm, confusion and difficulty completing tasks.

When we think about the amount of work required of us in such a short period of time we often start neglecting self care. We might reach for that fourth cup of coffee because… who has time for sleep? It’s easy to understand why this would happen if it feels like our lives might literally be over if we don’t pass an exam. Many of us have been there, including me.

Perfectionism often accompanies distress. This can prevent us from actually enjoying the process. Doesn’t it seem unreasonable to think the quality of an entire year’s work is determined by one letter written at the top of a test page?

Now that we are on the same page (pun intended), I want to share why I love using cognitive therapy to help students with school anxiety. It’s amazing to see how a student’s life can change when they realize they have complete control over their school experience. Let’s take a look at some of the ways to gain more control of school anxiety:


1.      Breathe!

One way we can rethink the amount of work we have to achieve in such a short period of time is to take a step back and recognize when we begin to rush our thoughts. Breathing allows us to hear our thoughts more clearly. After we recognize them, breathing allows us to stop spiraling into self-defeating thoughts that counter our capability and resilience.

2.   Reframe Stress

When thinking about the two types of stress - distress and eustress, we often categorize all stress as problematic and want to run away from it as quick as possible. However, being mindful and present with our stress is a helpful way of shifting our stress from an unpleasant experience to a productive and motivating experience. Reframing our stress can help us begin categorizing our tasks and motivate us to learn effective time management tools, which leads me into the next possible strategy.

3.   Creating a To-Do List

My personal favorite! Some people prefer the standard planner, but I’m more of a color coordinated, few doodles on the side type or organizer. I began creating a to-do list after grad school when I recognized planners did not have enough space for me to write down the amount of tasks I needed to complete each day. Creating a to-do list not only helped me prioritize my most important daily tasks, but also it helped me feel accomplished each day when I was able to check off all the things I completed. Having this list also helped me enjoy the process of completing larger tasks because I could recognize the steps I was achieving along the way. Yes, there are times when I didn’t get to everything - I’m not superwoman unfortunately - but I was able to start my to-do list for the next day prioritizing those things first to ensure I got everything done in a timely manner.

4.  Develop Realistic Expectations

This is where cognitive therapy steps in. Cognitive therapy helps address the pressure of family and society to meet educational demands. Understanding our thoughts, feelings and actions more clearly can help in overcoming the apprehension of not knowing if we will get a job once we graduate. Cognitive therapy teaches us how to give ourselves a break, re-evaluate our expectations of what we need to accomplish to stay above water, yet the most important.

5.   Practicing Self Care

You may be thinking right now… who has time for self care when there are 4 essays due and 3 exams? The bottom line is we cannot do our best work if we are not energized and revitalized. Taking time for ourselves to recharge is the most important part of achieving our goals and sustaining a healthy learning environment and practice.

Does your son or daughter need help with school anxiety?

I’m happy to help! Connect with me here –