Stress Management for High School Students

Picture the famous painting by Edvard Munch known as “The Scream”. No student should have to go through high school feeling like that person. Although there’s serious work to be done to gain admission to a top college, high school should be a time of joy in a young person’s life. For this to happen, the student needs to know how to manage stress.

According to the American Institute of Stress Management, members of Gen Z, the generation born between 1997 and 2012, many of whom are of college age, experience higher levels of stress than any other age group. Combining a rigorous curriculum, extracurriculars, part-time jobs, family dynamics, social media toxicity, and ordinary teenage angst, it’s no wonder that Gen Z teens, especially those aiming for top colleges, are highly stressed.

What is Stress?

Stress affects all organisms. It’s necessary for survival because it initiates rapid adaptations to danger. In physiological terms, stress is an instinctive reaction to anything that threatens homeostasis — a state of equilibrium. Stress is tension brought about by any kind of danger and the fear that results from it.

In modern America, a low or even moderate amount of stress is accepted as part daily life. But it’s well known that excessive stress can lead to health risks, especially for young people. It can harm or even end a student’s academic career. Although one might expect finances to be the main reason that students drop out of college, it’s actually the inability to handle stress. Unmanaged stress can erode mental, emotional, and physical health

Admissions Escalates Stress

Gaining admission to a top college is a competition that only a small percentage can win. It’s bound to be stress-inducing. This will be true as long as top schools continue to receive far more applications from well-qualified students than they can possibly accept. This is likely to persist despite an expected decline in enrollment at American colleges in general. Some observers know how harmful stress can be and want top schools to make it disappear. For example, New York Times columnist and college admissions commentator Frank Bruni stated the following in an opinion piece:

“They (top colleges) are realizing that many kids admitted into top schools are emotional wrecks or slavish adherents to soulless scripts that forbid the exploration of genuine passions. They acknowledge the extent to which the admissions process has contributed to this.” Although Bruni’s assessment may be overstated, it is advisable that students prepare for the stress they will experience when applying to top colleges. They should know that stress can undermine their chances of acceptance at desirable schools. Stress can’t be eliminated, but learning to manage stress is an advantage for an ambitious student.

Managing Stress in College Admissions

There are a number of viable ways that a student can manage stress during their college admissions campaign:

1. Get an Early Start
One way to keep stress manageable is to get an early start on admissions. Students who wait to focus on admissions as rising seniors run the risk of experiencing a time crunch. They may need to rush important tasks such as selecting the colleges that fit them best or they may be forced to submit sub-par applications, especially essays, due to time constraints. Such contingencies can be avoided, but only with intensive effort early in senior year. There are many articles about children being groomed for top colleges in preschool. Most people consider this excessive. However, students should prepare for college well in advance. Freshman year is not too early to get started. While some parts of the admissions process can only be accomplished later, preparing for college as an underclassman boosts the chances of being admitted to top schools.

2. Hire a College Admissions Consultant
Perhaps the best way to minimize stress is to hire an experienced college admissions consultant. Admissions consultants develop a strategic plan at the beginning of an engagement that’s based on the goals, interests, talents, accomplishments, and preferences of the student as an individual. The plan also considers the finances of the family. The very existence of a plan reduces stress. College admissions consultants also coach the student about what to expect, help set up timetables, and advise students how to prepare for each step in the process. Unpleasant surprises can sap a student’s optimism and set them back emotionally. Nothing reduces stress more than the confidence that there will be no surprises.

3. Stress Reducing Methods
There are many stress-reducing techniques, but those below have been used by many people to great effect. They can work independently or in combination.

a) Exercise: The mental benefits of exercise have a neurochemical basis. Exercise reduces levels of the body’s stress hormones, such as adrenaline and cortisol, and it stimulates the production of endorphins, the chemicals in the brain that are the body’s natural mood elevators. Strenuous exercise is best, but to be beneficial, exercise does not need to be grueling. It can be a walk of 20 minutes.

b) Yoga: Yoga isn’t cardiovascular exercise. It’s strength training that makes a person resilient and flexible in a way that relieves stress. Yoga uses deep breathing, which triggers the “rest-and-digest” response. Yoga also promotes mindfulness — a key to stress management.

 c) Meditation: This age-old practice has become a popular way for students to relieve stress. Meditation can be practiced to reduce stress in different ways:

  • It can be a part of a daily routine and help build resilience to stress.
  • It can be used to calm down when experiencing emotional distress.
  • It can be a quick relief to reverse the stress response and relax.

d) Planning: Circumstances may arise that make a student’s original strategic plan no longer viable, which can cause stress. If the plan is too demanding, it should be amended to bring it closer in line with achievable goals. To-do lists can also decrease anxiety because they provide structure and a sense of control. The student can envision each to-do list as a mini-goal to be accomplished.

e) Time Management: Poor time management is a major cause of stress. According to the Stress Management Society, “Good time management is essential if a student must handle a heavy workload without excessive stress”. Time management helps reduce stress by focusing the student’s energy and increasing productivity. It provides a set sequence to be followed when confronted by a daunting amount of work There are proven time management methods such as the Pomodoro technique that are free and easy to learn.

 f) Healthful Habits: Students should eat healthy meals and get adequate sleep. They should seek social support by connecting with peers. Students are advised to avoid unhealthy habits such as excessive alcohol consumption, illegal or unprescribed drug use, and tobacco products.

g) Breathing Techniques: Breathing and the emotional state of stress are tightly coupled functions that influence each other directly. Emotional states change the pattern of breathing and breathing patterns change emotional states. Changing how we breathe can change how we feel. For example, when one feels joy, breathing is regular, deep, and slow. When one feels stressed, breathing is irregular, short, fast, and shallow. If a student emulates breathing patterns associated with positive emotions, he or she can experience those emotions.

h) Medical Care: When a student is unsuccessful at reducing stress on their own, they should consult with a doctor who can make an assessment and then suggest behavioral changes or help arrange for needed care.