High School is hard. A typical day might begin at 6:00 am, getting ready, finishing up last minute homework, commuting to school. Then going from class to class for 8 hours, followed by extracurriculars, club meetings, SAT prep, and sports practices for another 2-4 hours. By now it is 7:00 pm and a student might still have 3 hours worth of homework ahead of them before they can finally take a break and either fall right asleep or stay up until the early morning watching tv, scrolling through social media, or playing video games, doing any activity in an attempt to regain some downtime.
The Atlantic cited a recent study that found that 49% of high school students reported feeling “a great deal of stress” on a daily basis. 50% of students reported doing three or more hours of homework per night. The level of stress that many high achieving students experience in the pursuit of perfect grades and college admissions is extreme, causing burnout, anxiety, depression, and many other forms of psychological and physical damage.
Many students see stress as a necessary ingredient for succeeding academically. You might brag to your friends about how little you slept last night, how you applied to 5 different summer programs all in one week, or how many practice tests you took studying for your exam. But the truth is that stress isn’t a normal side effect of success. It’s not a badge of honor, showing how well you are doing. In fact, it might even be limiting how well you can actually do:
“While stress around the time of learning is thought to enhance memory formation, thus leading to robust memories, stress markedly impairs memory retrieval, bearing, for instance, the risk of underachieving at exams. Recent evidence further indicates that stress may hamper the updating of memories in the light of new information and induce a shift from a flexible, ‘cognitive’ form of learning towards rather rigid, ‘habit’-like behaviour.” Susanne Vogel and Lars Schwabe in npj Science of Learning article “Learning and memory under stress: implications for the classroom”
Stress is your body’s defense signal, your “fight or flight” response, telling you that there is some sort of threat that you need to protect yourself from. It might be real or imagined, but in the context of school, it’s believing your life is over if you don’t do well on that upcoming midterm or that presentation in front of your entire class. Yes, stress in small doses can be motivating, but when it becomes your default state, you can lose the ability to think clearly and actually do your best.
So how do you stop stressing? How do you keep making your high achievements and get your life back?
1. Listen to your head
If you’re a chronically stressed, high-achieving student, you are probably used to ignoring your internal signals telling you you’re tired, hurting, or need to take a break. You push through and only when you are finished you let yourself rest. Well here’s the problem: When you’re feeling stressed, tired, etc., your quality of work decreases. You’re mind starts to focus on being stressed while you’re trying to focus on studying for your exam. So, if you are working on a task and start feel overwhelmed, stressed, or burnt out, notice this and take a 10 minute break. Go for a walk. Watch a funny video. Grab a snack. Let your mind rest so that when you come back to your studying, you are refreshed and able to bring your full strength to the task.
2. Stop Multitasking!
This one is probably most important for those students who find themselves spending excessive amounts of time on homework assignments. If you are a person who does homework while watching tv, or takes way too frequent social media breaks, you shouldn’t be surprised that it takes you twice as long to finish your homework. Your homework is usually a chance to really learn the information before the test, so when you multitask on this essential learning opportunity, you end up having to study more to make up for what you didn’t really learn on your homework! When you sit down to start your homework, turn off your phone, shut off the tv, find a quiet space with minimal distractions, and just focus on the task. Chances are, you’ve heard this advice before. If you need more convincing on why multitasking is not a good idea, you can hear it from an MIT Neuroscientist.
3. Just start the task
Much of the anxiety around school is unnecessary. Worrying about how much homework you have, how long the essay needs to be, how many chapters you need to study. You are wasting your time and energy with all this worrying! Instead just get started. Make a dent in the work so it doesn't seem like that much when you come back to it next. For example, next time you have an essay assignment, just start free flow writing. Brainstorm and write without editing as you go. That way, when you come back to edit your work later with fresh eyes, it’ll probably feel like less work since you already have so much of the essay written! Take this mindset to every big task you get, and you’ll find yourself getting your work completed faster, easier and with better end results.
4. Trust your abilities
When it comes to preparing for a test, it’s hard to know when to stop studying. You might labor away all night and continue studying up until the very second before test-taking time. But by now your brain is so fatigued from studying and exhausted from not sleeping that you’re having to work extra hard to recall everything you worked so hard to study. I’ve found I always do better when I make sure my mind is in a good place before a test than to spend the extra effort on additional studying. If you’ve followed all of the advice up until know, you may even find that you already know much of the information without even needing to do the extra studying (depending on the class, of course). So on the day of the test, be well rested, eat a healthy breakfast, and put down the textbook. It’s too late to try to learn any more information anyway, so trust that you’ve done all the studying you could, and just take the test.
Now, this is all much easier said than done. You might not be able to just flip a switch and instantly be stress free and amazing in school. It takes a certain mindset, a belief that you really can do well without the stress. It also requires that you actually put these things into regular practice. But being able to do so is an amazing feeling and will set you up for success later in life.
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