A version of this article appeared on print in our November 2016 issue.
Pens and pencils lay scattered among binders filled with papers. Bent over the mess is a student, hard at work on the latest round of assignments and projects. As the sun goes down and the mountain of work hardly seems to shrink, the student’s stress increases.
At competitive schools across the country, including this high school, stress is a daily problem for students. In a survey conducted by The Bradford, 30% of students in their sophomore, junior, or senior year spend more than 30 hours stressed out in a typical week.
“When I ask how people are doing, school is usually the first thing that kids talk about,” said Ms. Melissa Gray, the high school psychologist. “The second leading cause is peer and social issues, and family stress is number three… I would say that all three of them interact with each other.”
As Gray points out, the largest stresser by far is academics. Students often increase their own stress by comparing themselves to their peers.
“The problem is that most of my friends are go-getters and I am not, so they are like ‘Oh, I have all this done!’ and I’m like ‘Oh, I probably should too, shouldn’t I? Oh man,’” said Nadine Richardson ’17.
Natalie Boyle ’18 agreed with Richardson. “There are definitely friends that I can rant to and alleviate my stress, but I think that especially in Wellesley, a lot of people talk about their grades which makes me feel stressed,” said Boyle. “I think that the whole atmosphere of Wellesley focuses a lot on grades because everyone is talking about their GPA and ACT or SAT scores, which can make me feel pretty stressed.”
Family expectations also contribute to the stress that students feel. “A lot of the community tends to be very educated,” said Gray. “I think that you see a lot more parents here that have gone farther degree wise and have similar expectations for their kids.”
Especially among seniors, the pressure mounts first term as college-related stress ramps up. “The general ‘There is too many things and not enough time’ [is affecting me a lot] and college certainly does not help with that,” said Richardson.
However, the environment of constant stress is often much more detrimental to a student’s success than motivational. In an article written by Noelle R. Leonard et al. for Frontiers in Psychology, professionals agree that too much stress leads to problems that continue long after high school.
“There is growing awareness that many subgroups of youth experience levels of chronic stress that are so great that youths’ abilities to succeed academically are actually undermined, mental health functioning is compromised,” the study reads. “Further, this chronic stress in high school appears to persist into the college years, and may contribute to academic disengagement and mental health problems among emerging adults.”
Frontiers in Psychology is not the only group to draw this conclusion. A article by Christopher James for New York University also examined the lasting effects of stress in high school.
“‘School, homework, extracurricular activities, sleep, repeat—that’s what it can be for some of these students,’ says Noelle Leonard, PhD, a senior research scientist at the New York University College of Nursing (NYUCN),” the article reads. “‘We are concerned that students in these selective, high pressure high schools can get burned out even before they reach college,’ noted Leonard. ‘The Charles Engelhard Foundation is interested in the issue of college engagement, and funded us to explore whether the roots of disengagement reach back as far as high school. We found that indeed they do.’”
Gray deals with some of the immediate impacts of stress through her counseling sessions with students.
“I talk a lot with parents and students about carving out that time when you stop working,” Gray said. “I’m not sure how compliant students are with that, but loss of sleep definitely increases anxiety a lot of the time, and the stress and anxiety are very linked in terms of mental health.”
Anxiety is not the only negative effect of stress. According to a research study published by the psychology department of the Payame Noor University in Tehran, Iran, stress is directly linked to a wide range of mental and physical health issues.
“Persistent stress that is not resolved through coping or adaptation, deemed distress, may lead to anxiety or withdrawal (depression) behavior. 50-80% of all physical disorders like ulcers, asthma, migraine headaches, arthritis, and even cancer, have psychosomatic or stress related origins,” the study reveals. “Symptoms of stress may be cognitive, emotional, physical, or behavioral.”
The list goes on and on, naming symptoms such as nausea, dizziness, chest pain, rapid heartbeat, procrastinating or neglecting responsibilities, using alcohol and cigarettes, moodiness, irritability or short temper, agitation, memory problems, inability to concentrate, poor judgment, pessimistic approach or thoughts, anxious or racing thoughts, and constant worrying.
However, there are ways to cope with stress. Gray advises students to take a moment for themselves, even when they have a lot of work to do.
“A lot of times when I said ‘techniques,’ kids [don’t want to do that], like ‘Oh no, I don’t want to sit and do deep breathing,’ but you don’t necessarily have to do that. It can be helpful, it has been scientifically proven to be helpful, so a lot of times if I can get buy-in on that, there are a lot of different apps for guided meditation.”
Activities at the school also provide relief. Challenge Success, a program all over the country that also works with students here at Wellesley High School, helps students to focus on things outside of test and grades. Their mantra is “playtime, downtime, and family time.”
“Challenge Success recognizes that our current fast-paced, high-pressure culture works against much of what we know about healthy child development and effective education. The overemphasis on grades, test scores, and rote answers has stressed out some kids and marginalized many more,” said the Challenge Success website.
Above all, Gray wants students to find a method of de-stressing that works for them.
“Working out has been proven to be very stress relieving. Physical activity is a proven stress reliever. Hanging out with friends is a stress reliever, unless you are hanging out with people and they are ruminating on the things that you are stressed out about. Even just cognitive distractions like coloring… reading, listening to music. Even helping to plan ahead by looking at the work that you have to do… makes things seem more manageable.”
In addition, Gray feels that it is important for students to recognize that the high-stress path to academic success is not the only option open to them.
“I think that a unique thing about my role is that I have a conversation with kids more often than anyone else in the building about not going to college and what would it look like to do something else after high school, like a gap year or a different type of program,” said Gray.
At the end of the day, while academics are important, everyone needs to learn how to take a moment to relax, because health always should remain most important.