Many of us complain about the stressful, competitive environment of our school in which students feel pressured to outperform their peers academically, but we also must acknowledge that we contribute to this environment. Many of us are familiar with the racing pulse from too many cups of coffee and trying to stay awake in class after a long night doing work.
Stress is a mindset that we encourage, albeit unknowingly. We compare how much coffee we have had or how few hours we slept last night. We compete regarding who is most stressed and who deserves the most sympathy for sacrificing their sleep and lives to their work.
This creates the impression that stress is the norm, even something to aspire to achieve at an unhealthy rate, and anyone not stressed is doing something wrong. It creates a positive feedback loop in which people feel pressured to take on more things, stress about them because they have overloaded themselves, and the cycle continues.
A study conducted by New York University notes that high-achieving high school students who attend high-performing, often affluent private schools, much like Heritage, are more prone to stress. The study notes: “Private schools have reacted [to the competitive college admissions process] by providing more difficult classes (which may require longer hours of challenging homework), college-level classes, and requiring extracurricular activities, as well as other opportunities for students to stand out, such as entrepreneurial or community service opportunities. Parents, in turn, may demand their children take Advanced Placement courses, even in cases where they are told their child is not a good fit for the course and may not be able to handle the work. Thus schools, parents, and students may feel caught in a cycle of escalating demands and expectations, largely out of their control and driven by greater societal factors.”
The study cites that this increased pressure on students can force them to adapt positive or negative coping strategies. Michelle Grethel, an independent consultant cited in the NYU research, said, “Our interviews yielded few descriptions of less adaptive strategies, in contrast to the many adaptive strategies articulated by students, with two exceptions, emotional exhaustion and substance use.”
This emotional exhaustion component can lead to lethargy and lack of motivation, which ironically stems from originally too much motivation to take on new tasks. Overachieving to such a high degree can lead down a path that ends in emotional burnout and potential substance abuse to serve as a numbing agent. Yet we continue this cycle this by creating an atmosphere in which students believe if they are not emotionally drained like their friends and classmates, they are not doing enough to push themselves.
The NYU study suggests that a certain level of stress can be good for youth and can push them to succeed. However, there is a fine line between how much stress is too much, and sometimes we do not figure out this formula until we have crossed that line. In order to cope with the inevitable academic and social stressors of high school, we can implement positive practices such as time management, delegating periods of relaxation and meditation.
Sophomore Kayla Myers has vouched for the stress she has experienced at school. She gets about five hours of sleep during the school week and must juggle her school work and other activities. “I take a relatively rigorous course load and am often faced with several tests or quizzes on any given day, which often makes it difficult to get a full night of sleep and meet the needs of my extracurricular activities,” Myers said. “I get very stressed about my grades, but thankfully, my parents and friends are beyond supportive and know that I work hard and do my best when it comes to school.”
We must not focus solely on piling on enough difficult classes and extracurriculars that the weight makes it hard to stand in order to get into college. Learning is a journey and the end goal should not be to get into college, especially if that means sacrificing our emotional well-being in the process. The ends do not always justify the means. The goal of high school is to learn, not just to get into college, although that is the natural progression. We should take classes and participate in activities that truly engage us and not because we think they make our resume more “well-rounded.” Doing things because we feel obligated to perpetuates the “stress culture” and serves not to further our education but to make us more frazzled.
Although Myers said her grades and extracurriculars can be a source of her stress, participating in activities she loves can make the situation better. “I like to do my extracurriculars, which are dance and cheer, and I like to go for runs,” Myers said. This may be the best case scenario, in which students must still balance their outside activities with their academic obligations but enjoy the time they spend on those activities and feel engaged by the courses they take.
The culture that we have created as a student body is often harmful to our collective perception of what our education means to us. We should partake in activities that we enjoy and not take on more than we can handle, because doing so will only make the situation worse.