Brad’s mom was worried about her son.
“He’s a great kid. An honor student who tries hard to do his very best. A parent’s dream, right? But I’m worried about him. He’s overly stressed. And so hard on himself. I tell him to relax but I don’t think he has the faintest idea about how to do that.”
Brad agreed with his mom’s assessment. “But,” he said, “this is the year that will determine my future. I have a ton of work to do for my honors classes. I need to decide what colleges to apply to. I need to keep up with my extra-curricular activities and there’s just never enough time in the day for me.”
I asked Brad the following questions:
- Do you have a strong need for everything to be “just so?”
- Do you give yourself a real hard time when you make a mistake?
- Do you spend a lot of time with details that others don’t give as much importance to?
- Are you satisfied with your work only if it’s as good as it can possibly be?
- Do you think in terms of ‘perfect’ or ‘just no good’, ignoring the gray area that exists between these two extremes?
When Brad answered a definitive “Yes” to each of my questions, I knew that he was struggling with a strong case of ‘honor student’ stress that needed to be addressed.
“Yes, I’m stressed. I hate it when I don’t excel, but what’s wrong with that? Shouldn’t everybody always strive to do their best? I want to get into a top college and how will I ever do that unless I get the grades now. I mean, achievement is everything. If I don’t get into the right college, I won’t have a great career. If I don’t have a great career, I’ll miss out on all the good opportunities in life. I won’t be able to afford nice vacations or send my kids to the best colleges or be able to live in a beautiful house.”
“Wait a minute, Brad,” I said. “Look at the stress you’re putting on yourself. You’re 16 years old. Instead of enjoying these years, you fear your whole life will be a tragedy if you don’t go to the best college. That isn’t the way it works. No matter what school you attend, you can learn what you need to know to be successful in a career and in life.”
Brad took a deep sigh and said, “I wish I could believe that. But school is so competitive. I have very high standards. I have to do better than anyone else. I’m never satisfied with myself. Sometimes I just want to call it quits, I’m so burned out.”
“There is a way out of this mess,” I reassured Brad. “You don’t need to keep such intense pressure on yourself. You can alter your over-the-top standards that are creating such a burden on you. I’ll show you how.”
Brad was wary about changing his ways but he was so stressed out that he was ready to give it a try. He surprised me by being a good learner. Three months later, I was no longer working with a stressed out, overburdened, anxious Brad. Rather, I was working with an energized, enthusiastic, pumped up teen who was committed to working smarter, not harder.
Brad is not unique. School stress is increasingly taking a toll on students’ emotional and physical health. So, what can be done to alleviate this stress – especially for honor students who deeply care about how well they are doing? It’s not easy for them to alter their ways. Getting to the top and being the best has been pounded into these kids’ heads for so long that it may seem like there is no other way to live.
Honor students work hard at their studies. That’s how they got to be honor students. They also tend to be engrossed in many other activities that are resume builders, such as sports, music, community activities and an active social life. When they dare to slack off in order to catch a breather, they’re invariably reprimanded by parents, teachers and/or their own conscience.
What is the cost of all this pressure at such a young age?
The most significant cost is a sense of chronic insecurity about their future. Most of these kids don’t believe that it’s all going to be okay no matter what grades they achieve or what college they attend. Despite being strikingly smart, they are terribly insecure about their ability to make it. An unremitting anxiety lurks in their minds that they won’t measure up to their peers, to their siblings, to their parents’ expectations or to their own inflated expectations of what they should be achieving.
All this stress and anxiety takes its toll on the joy of learning. Indeed, learning for learning’s sake seems to be a quaint replica from the past. Today, it’s all about the grades and the standardized tests. Figuring out how to allocate your time when there is so much to do is exhausting, especially when you believe that any exam or paper can ruin your GPA and squash your chances of getting into the ‘best’ college.
So, if you, or someone you care for, are experiencing ‘honor student’ stress, here are five things you need to know.
- Everything is not equally important. Put your time and effort into what is important to you and let other things slide. The world won’t come to an end if you drop a class or an activity or a project. Really, it won’t!
- Believe in yourself. There are many ways you can be successful in life. Success is not dependent upon your getting into the best college or having the best grades or getting the highest score on your SAT or ACT.
- If you are experiencing the pangs of stress (headaches, stomach aches, irritability, meltdowns, panic, chronic anxiety, depression, inability to relax, interrupted sleep), pay attention to these symptoms. Chronic stress can do you in physically and emotionally.
- Lighten up. Be kind to yourself. Change your harsh and burdensome “shoulds” to empowering “coulds.” An abundance of “shoulds” drains your energy while “coulds” carries the mature message that you have the right, capacity and obligation to make choices about what you’ll take care of in any given day.
- Spend most of your time and energy on what you enjoy learning. Otherwise, you may find in later years that this competitive academic race has turned into a race to nowhere.
“It’s not the load that breaks you down, it’s the way you carry it.”