As you might imagine, researchers are starting to look in more detail at the sources and effects of stress on high school students. In 2015, an excellent study (click here for link to study) done by Noelle Leonard and others at NYU’s School of Nursing was published in the journal Frontiers in Psychology. It looked at stress in students at two private high schools with high achieving student populations. (Note: Click on Research Links under the More Resources tab for links to a sampling of other similar studies.) This graph shows the main sources of stress for those students.

Source: Leonard, N. et. al. (2018) A multi-method exploratory study of stress, coping, and substance use among high school youth in private schools. Frontiers in Psychology 2015; 6: 1028.

Although many students also felt stress regarding other areas of their lives, the sources of stress in the greatest number of students were grades, homework and getting into college—over 60% on all three measures. Not too surprising.

What might surprise you, though, and what alarms me, is that this study also found that the rate of symptoms of depression at a clinically significant level in this population of high achievers was 26%, and that the students who feel stressed about schoolwork, grades and college includes 49% (of all students) who reported feeling a great deal of stress on a daily basis, with the rest feeling somewhat stressed daily. That 49% is a huge percentage of highly at-risk kids. And the 26% who are diagnosable as depressed is a significantly higher percentage than that in the general population.

Of course, not all of those in that 26% have academic stress as the primary source of their depression, but that makes heaping the demands on them even worse, right? It exacerbates a problem that is already causing major struggles.

There is ample research on the specific effects of chronic stress, a.k.a. bad stress. I encourage you to seek out individual studies when you have time, because it’s important for us to be aware of the potential consequences for our kids if the demands on them lead to a chronic state of stress. Let’s look briefly at a list of ways in which researchers have found that stress can manifest itself in overburdened teenagers.

How does chronic stress affect teens?

loss of focus

weakened immune system

gastrointestinal issues

sleep disorders

substance abuse

eating disorders

headaches

anxiety

anger issues

panic attacks

depression

self-harm

Early signs include a loss of focus and frequent headaches. For most this is temporary or occasional, and is more of an annoyance than a serious problem. For some, though, these problems can be ongoing and debilitating.

Stress is also linked to anxiety and a weakened immune system, gastrointestinal issues, anger issues, sleep disorders and panic attacks. These mid-level problems are not minor and can significantly throw a person’s life off track if they persist.

The biggest dangers come with substance abuse, depression, eating disorders and self-harm. I don’t think we need to individually examine these all-too-common issues. You know the risks all too well.

What we do need to be aware of is that these issues—which, again, are likely present to some extent in every one of that 49% who say they have high levels of daily anxiety—have often become chronic by the time students graduate from high school, and they follow our kids to college and into adulthood. Belief that they can never do enough to ensure a happy and successful future for themselves can become habitual, and can have the same negative effects on their lives for many years or even decades. This is a major problem for each individual and for society as a whole, and it’s a problem worthy of hard work to overcome.

And it becomes ironic for many, right? The constant push to achieve, achieve, achieve has these side effects that often hinder their ability to achieve. Even low levels of loss of focus and headaches make it more difficult to get things done. Once the problems progress to sleep loss, stomach pain and more frequent illnesses, one’s ability to do one’s best can be seriously impaired. And, of course, the most dangerous issues associated with chronic stress can spell an end to the hopes one had that led to the stress in the first place.

This is important. Every one of us has limits beyond which our efforts become counterproductive. Those limits are different for each of us. And we should be asking ourselves—especially when dealing with kids who are vulnerable and have little to no experience with knowing their limits—how much is gained, if anything, by students relentlessly pushing themselves to achieve at the highest levels possible in everything they do.

Look, I don’t want to belabor something that’s hopefully already obvious to most of you, but it’s very important to be aware of this potential for danger and to ask ourselves as we progress through the rest of this presentation whether it’s worth risking these consequences for a very small chance at what I’m hoping to convince you is not as great a return as most believe.

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Okay, I’ve made my case for why I believe that the frenzy over attendance at the most selective school possible is harmful. Perhaps for a few of you who tend to lean toward erring on the side of caution like I do, this is enough to get you thinking about some changes you might want to make. There’s much more, though. Let’s look at the mountain of evidence that chronic admissions stress is unnecessary.