Academic pressure is nothing new, but full-blown anxiety over the need to achieve perfectly can sometimes produce an opposite result, paralyzing students and preventing them from accomplishing even the simplest task. Other students put in many hours of effort and obtain good grades, but somehow feel that it is never enough. How much academic pressure is too much?
Many students today are funneled into high-achieving programs, learning physics and robotics and writing 20-page term papers in ninth grade, challenges that used to come many years later. Each student’s brain is wired differently, and not everyone understands concepts at the same rate or level. Yet those in advanced classes or magnet programs are expected to overcome these challenges and keep up with nine or more classes per quarter. They stay up late into the night, trying to decode calculus while worrying that they’re falling behind in volunteer hours or extracurricular activities.
Feeling Out of Control
The psychiatric diagnostic manual defines anxiety as a sense of hopelessness and powerlessness, coupled with a feeling of doom. This definitely describes many students. Sometimes putting the time in just doesn’t produce results because the material is too advanced. No one wants to admit something is too difficult, so they just keep pressing on, hoping for a better result. Students fear disappointing their parents if they don’t do well in classes, or being dropped from their program. They look around and see some of their friends doing fine and wonder why they can’t do the same. They fear humiliation if people find out they can’t follow what’s going on. A report card with a B or a C on it can seem like the end of the world — students fear they will not gain admission into a good college which will prevent them from landing a good job. This type of snowball thinking can quickly spin out of control.
Debilitating anxiety symptoms include difficulty concentrating and the mind going blank along with difficulty sleeping. These and other symptoms further exacerbate the symptoms or anxiety and assignments and test become harder to do well on. A downward cycle can begin with associated physical symptoms and depression. The cycle has to stop.
Recipe for Change
Some tried-and-true methods for combatting teenage anxiety include some of the same techniques used to manage any type of stress, depression or bad feelings. Try to make sure your teen gets some aerobic exercise every day (even walking helps). Many teens will eat junk food when parents aren’t looking, but try to temper it at home by feeding them fruits, vegetables, whole grains and proteins. Teens like to stay up late, but they need their sleep in order to be functional and rational. Don’t let your teen keep her phone in her room overnight — it’s a definite sleep killer. Does your teen have a good social support network, or are her friends competitive and derisive? She won’t drop them just because you tell her to, but try to expose her to other people and experiences to balance out the range of effects. Help her set realistic academic goals and make a plan to prepare far ahead of time for tests. A school counselor might be able to help, or you can hire a private coach to help her organize her time.
Havenwood Academy has a residential treatment program for girls experiencing academic-driven anxiety or other forms of anxiety. Their methods and techniques are proven to teach girls how to calm themselves in moments of fear so that they can deal with the high pressures of academic achievement-oriented society without experiencing debilitating anxiety.