“I can’t wait for college!”
“I have senioritis. I’m only a freshman.”
“I’m 50 shades of done with this semester.”
As a senior, I hear (or say) these things on a daily basis. I don’t know a single high school student who can look me in the eyes and honestly tell me that high school isn’t stressful.
Sometimes, I feel like high school was dramatically easier 10, 20, 30 years ago. My teachers tell me that when they were my age, no one studied for the ACT. Until the day they took the test, the ACT was just three letters with no significant meaning. Today, junior year is notorious for being the most difficult year of high school, with the exception of first semester senior year, because of standardized tests. Students take prep classes or practice tests, calculate how many questions they can miss to achieve a certain score, and research the scores needed for their dream schools.
With technology like Naviance, we can now track the average GPA and scores of students that are accepted to certain colleges. We are more aware of how our peers are doing and how high our grades and test scores should be. Having all this information at the tips of our fingers is convenient on one hand, but daunting as well.
Increase in high school stress?
Seems like it to me.
Let me qualify that statement. Stress due to the “numbers game”—test scores and GPA—has increased due to improved access to information. But overall, we still experience the same fundamental challenge as teenagers regardless of time period: life balance. Balancing schoolwork and extracurricular activities and family and a social life and sleep is nearly impossible, but it’s just a part of growing up. My parents, grandparents, and teachers all had to endure this challenge.
Maybe, just maybe, it’s our time to struggle through this now.
I use the word “struggle” to describe my late nights when I have to decide between sleeping and starting my homework, the moments when I’m totally lost in class because I spent the day helping my friend edit papers instead of studying, and the nights I don’t come home until after 9 p.m. and I battle to keep my eyes open. It is in these moments that I diagnose myself with senioritis and question why I try so hard.
But here’s my consolation—through this struggle to strike a perfect life balance, I’ve developed perspective. My perspective, along with a TED Talk, made me realize that stress doesn’t have to be a bad thing.
My day-to-day problems seem huge to me in the moment, but looking back, they don’t seem too bad. At the end of the day, that one test I freaked out about because I barely studied is just one test. Nothing more. It doesn’t define me and it doesn’t define my knowledge or intelligence. That one speech tournament where I completely stumbled over my words and didn’t make it to finals is just one competition. It doesn’t define my speaking ability or confidence. That one hangout I missed because of a family vacation isn’t an once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. There will be more to come.
During the school weeks that seem to drag on forever, I comfort myself with this fact: the average American is expected to live until 79. High school is a mere four years, a mere 5 percent of the rest of our lives. This simple fact helps me remember that life goes on, even when it’s late at night and every little problem starts to consume my sanity.
I’ll admit that I get stressed out a lot during the school year. Before, I always thought stress was the enemy and that stress made me sick. But then I watched a TED Talk called “How to Make Stress Your Friend.” In a research study, they found that 182,000 Americans died not from stress but from the belief that stress is bad for you, making it the 15th most common cause of death. Skeptical, I continued to watch. By the end of the video, I began to believe that stress could be a positive mechanism. Hopefully, after reading this column and watching the video yourself, you will believe me too.
Here’s how: when people view stress as helpful, their heart rate increases and the blood vessels actually relax, unlike a typical, negative stress response, which constricts blood vessels. Furthermore, another study showed that a positive stress response leads people to reach out and help others. In turn, this compassion and care for humanity led to less stress-related deaths. Maybe a pounding physical heart and a rush of adrenaline aren’t so bad—it’s just our body saying that we can face life’s challenges.
Combining my own perspective with this TED Talk video, I think I have a solution to high school stress.
First, realize that life goes on. Then, use stress in positive ways as motivation, courage, and compassion. Try it out and see if it works.
In the meantime, enjoy high school while you can.