The causes of rising stress in high schoolers


Stress is increasingly becoming an epidemic all teens in school must face (Internet Photo by Keith Negley)

Grace Downing, Staff Writer

After crawling out of bed before the sun has a chance to rise, spending over seven hours in the classroom, followed by a couple more hours of after-school activities, an exhausted teenager returns home with the daunting promise of carving out even more of their time to spend on homework. This is the scenario most teens are met with at the end of a typical school day in America.

This daily workload is far from relaxing and, for a majority of these teens, the amount of testing coupled with the pressure from both parents and teachers to excel in every area possible has caused rising amount of prolonged stress to become commonplace.

Although small amounts of stress are actually considered to be healthy, persistent occurrences can become increasingly detrimental to a person’s mental and physical well-being.

When someone becomes stressed, a hormone called “cortisol” is released across the entire body, where it works to restore that person to a state of normal, unstressed conditions. But the longer cortisol is spread throughout the body, the more it can affect the functions of other bodily mechanisms, including the immune system.

Science teacher Jennifer Thorstenson explained the possible negative aspects chronic stress can yield.

“If your immune system isn’t triggering what it should normally, we could have issues with things like histamines not being released properly,” Thorstenson said. “And then your inflammatory response not working properly, which means if there is some kind of an invader coming in, your body might not respond to that properly as it should.”

Thorstenson also spoke about the effects prolonged stress can have on a student’s mental state.

“It’s related to depression and anxiety and insomnia,” Thorstenson said. “So if the person’s not getting enough rest and all that, it’s really triggering responses to other things, too.”

According to the American Psychological Association, as of 2014, it was found that during the school year, teenagers were the group of people that dealt with the most stress overall. Over 60 percent of teens said that they felt overwhelmed, sad or depressed as a result of stress, and more than 30 percent reported an increase in stress levels in the past year.

Professor and pediatrician at the Saint Louis University School of Medicine Stuart Slavin conducted a stress survey on about two-thirds of the students at Irvington High School in Fremont, Calif., where he used the State-Trait Anxiety Inventory, and the Center for Epidemiologic Studies Depression Scale, which both serve as common gauges of stress.

From this survey, the New York Times reported that more than 50 percent of students demonstrated moderate to severe symptoms of depression, and 80 percent were experiencing moderate to severe symptoms of anxiety.

“This is so far beyond what you would typically see in an adolescent population,” Slavin said. “It’s unprecedented.”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention stated that a vast majority of teens in the United States are getting at least two hours less sleep each night than what’s suggested. Research links their decrease in sleep to an increase in their homework load, and a lack of sleep in teens only fuels the arise of even more health issues.

Richard Scheffler, who works as a health economist at the University of California, Berkeley, gave his insight to the New York Times about this issue.

“Many of the health effects are apparent now, but many more will echo through the lives of our children,” Scheffler said. “We will all pay the cost of treating them and suffer the loss of their productive contributions.”

So, in the face of this surging stress epidemic, what actions can be taken to ease the rising tide?

Freshman Julie Hynds explained how she copes with her stress on a daily basis.

“Personally, I find it hard to manage my stress, and I think that a lot of students struggle with this as well, because when you’re stressed out about something, just telling yourself that you’re gonna do well really doesn’t work for most people,” Hynds said. “And so I manage my stress by over studying for things, until I feel that I completely know it.”

Hynds also added that too much studying can have the opposite effect.

“I think you can overstudy for things because, if you’re so stressed, and you’re obsessed with getting a good grade, like many students are, you can waste time studying for something,” Hynds said. “And it can cause you to get less sleep, and that’s when stress becomes unhealthy, which is something that I think I personally struggle with as well.”

This kind of overwhelming stress is exactly what many teens are facing each day, and the same high school that Slavin surveyed began making reforms after its alarming results. The main change the school has implemented is the amount of homework that is regularly assigned.

The New York Times stated that, at Irvington, teachers are reconsidering the amount of homework they assign, and some are only allowing at most 20 minutes of homework per class each night, and assigning none on weekends, restoring the district’s long over-looked homework measures.

Irvington is actively making an effort to balance students’ academics with their athletic and social schedules, working hard to relieve these teens of their normally stress-plagued days.

Karen Sue, who has children in a New Jersey School district – which is attempting to make reforms similar to those at Irvington – spoke to the New York Times about the extent to which this severe stress has reached.

“It’s become an arms race, an educational arms race,” Sue said. “We all want our kids to achieve and be successful. The question is, at what cost?”