Day 2: Anxiety Series
May 18, 2017
As the editors and I were mulling over what to write about for this series, the topic that consistently came up was academic anxiety.
We all had stories of friends who timed when they could cry during the day, and friends that stayed up until 4:00 in the morning to finish homework. We all knew how bad the anxiety was when it came to doing well in school and getting into college.
We saw it all first hand as many of you have.
So we decided to write about it in a three-day series that explores the questions surrounding where anxiety starts and how students deal with it, specifically here, at Cambridge High School.
Our reporting has led us to issues such as AP classes, college admission requirements and the emotional effects of anxiety.
With these stories, we hope to promote awareness of an overwhelmingly large issue and give hope for a brighter future.
Part 4: Parents
The age-old stereotype of the lazy, parent-hating teenager now appears to be one best left in feel-good movies from the 1980s, as the obstacle course of high school academia has become one that both students and parents have to navigate.
Top schools’ steadily slimming admission rates and an increasingly challenging high school course load have resulted in hyper-awareness of SAT scores and AP classes, and schedules so tightly packed that students’ lives outside of school can be heavily impacted.
The stress of school isn’t the only factor that affects a student’s life. The level of parent involvement in a student’s life can have a large influence on the way kids approach their schooling.
However, parents can also feel pressure to have their children excel academically. ‘
“There is a lot of confusion [amongst parents] about what academic success looks like,” said the school’s social worker, Stephanie Schuette. “We have parents who do that catastrophic thinking.”
This “catastrophic thinking” Schuette speaks of is a problem she believes many students face. It is the idea that if one thing in someone’s life goes awry, a massive catastrophe will arise.
Akin to a domino effect, catastrophic thinking could lead a student or parent to believe that one failed test can lead to college rejection and jeopardize his or her entire future.
It seems to be a mindset to which neither parents nor students are immune.
“If you have this catastrophic thinking in your ears all the time, you’ll start to believe it,” Schuette said.
The phrase “helicopter parent” has been used to describe those who succumb to it. Schuette said these type of parents are characterized by certain behaviors, such as checking Home Access more than once a week or immediately contacting teachers before attempting to communicate with their children.
Pam Kipniss, a parent representative on the School Governance Council, said she sees the effect that this type of parenting can have on children.
“I think students feel academic pressure from parents who are helicopter parents or too involved in their student’s academic success,” Kipniss said in an email.
Kipniss said that although parent involvement is undoubtedly important, the delicate balance between involvement and helicopter parenting can be difficult to strike.
“I feel it is important for a parent to keep in touch with the student’s academic life so the student can feel that his or her parent does care,” Kipniss said. “But I think a drawback is a parent who is a helicopter parent and does everything for the student while always asking the student about their academic life.”
Continuous pressure on the part of a parent can also harm the student’s future prospects, Kipniss said.
“Students will not be as successful in their future because parents held their student’s hand and took charge of their student’s academic life,” she said.
Schuette said the goal of academic success is a common one for many, but it can negatively impact all parties involved when a student’s sense of self-worth becomes dependent upon that success. “You can be heavily involved, but if the parent places their child’s worth on their success, that’s not healthy,” said Schuette.
Part 5: What is Anxiety Doing to students?
You come home with a heavy backpack as usual. You’ve got a thousand things to do, and it’s already 7 PM. Last night you went to bed at midnight, so you actually got an hour more of sleep than usual.
You down a cup of coffee despite the sun already being down because practice ran late, but you forsake the shower because you only have so much precious time to study for one of three AP classes.
Around 11 PM, with papers stacked or strewn and notes done and redone, you start to wonder why you feel so empty or angry.
This may sound like an exaggeration, but for some students, it’s an everyday reality that affects their mental well being. So why do students overload themselves, and what’s the mental result of it all?
Social worker Stephanie Schuette said 75-80 percent of students who enter her office are coming in because of academic-related stress and anxiety, and often their complaints are centered on students’ work volume.
She said the cases range from students whose friends directed them to Schuette for help, to students who had overnight panic attacks and recognize their situation isn’t healthy.
“Some have thoughts like ‘I can’t get out of this’ and ‘why do I even try’,” said Schuette.
Sophomore Riley Matthews was placed into accelerated mathematics her freshman year despite her hesitancy. She said she’d cry in the bathroom during CLAWS, because the stress got to be too much.
“It was a huge step to take on-level math, for me, but it was so much better,” said Matthews.
Matthews said part of the pressure that undermines students comes from the expectation that they earn straight A’s, something she said some people just can’t reach.
AP US History teacher Lauren Hall said part of the reason students overwhelm themselves in high school is that they’re given an unrealistic picture of what’s required to get into college. They often believe they need several AP courses and high GPAs on their transcripts, as well as a variety of extracurriculars.
In sophomore year, students and parents go into meetings about how many APs a student should take to get into UGA or Georgia Tech. Hall said this event puts an unfair amount of pressure on students. Also, parents may panic if they think their children haven’t taken enough APs or advanced classes to get into a desirable college.
Hall and Schuette said that because students are so involved in trying to increase their AP numbers for college, they often lose focus of what they actually enjoy.
“They end up letting go of what interests them, and I think it’s tragic,” said Hall.
This ties into how students are unhealthily coping with stress. Schuette said there are many optimal ways to blow off steam, but because of the pressure to be successful, even relaxation has become goal-oriented.
A hypothetical example she gave was that a student might opt to run three miles, instead of just hanging out so that they can consider themselves “productive.”
Freshman Madeline Feely, who takes mainly honors classes and one AP course, said the stress that comes from worrying about school can be overwhelming.
“When you start worrying about it so much, it just feels like a weight you can’t lift,” said Feely.
This year she took AP Government and ultimately came to the conclusion that she doesn’t want to overload herself on AP classes next year. “I wish I didn’t take AP gov because there’s lots of work I just wasn’t ready to take on,” said Feely.
Schuette said she believes peer pressure plays a major role in what rigor courses, such as AP literature or advanced algebra, students take on.
However, academics or external pressures aren’t the only cause of unhealthy levels of stress and anxiety. It can also be innately built into an individual.
“A person’s genetics, biochemistry, environment, history, and psychological profile can all contribute to the development of anxiety disorders,” said the New York Times’ “Generalized Anxiety Disorder” health guide.
The Times said 50 percent of people with panic disorders and 40 percent of people with anxiety have someone in their family with a disorder.
AP US History teacher Bob Bordas said, “I talked to one student and they said ‘I didn’t go to bed last night.’” This student was busy studying. He said overdoing a class load will take a physical and mental toll on students.
Hall said students feel pressure to compete with their peers. With students constantly trying to compete with each other in every field possible, they start to have a negative effect on the student’s self-esteem and self-image.
“It’s a little excessive, the amount of pressure we put on ourselves and maybe we just need to take a step back and think about our health,” said Feely.
Part 7: Sports and School
For most athletes, finding a middle ground between academics and athletics can be a challenge.
Several star athletes said the stress from extracurricular activities affects their results in the classroom.
“Days, where I have practice, are way more stressful than days without. Those are nights where I’m too tired to do anything, so I push my work away until the morning,” said varsity basketball player Sierra Sieracki.
Sierra, a junior, said the pressure to give her best performance on the court and in the classroom can sometimes be overwhelming.
“I partly play basketball for college. I always feel so much pressure to perform well in order to get a college scholarship,” said Sieracki.
Sieracki has been playing basketball since she was in fourth grade, and she said she intends to play through college, although she hasn’t committed to any school.
The past seven years of her life have been a cycle of two things: basketball and school. Sieracki has faced anxiety in the past due to her tight schedule, in which she must juggle sports and studies.
“It’s hard to balance things sometimes,” Sieracki said. “I could get one step off the track and it messes everything up.”
Sieracki’s coach of the past three years said stress has taken a toll on several of the athletes she has trained.
“There are definitely times when players are affected by anxiety or stress at either practice or a game, and it can hinder performance,” Women’s Varsity Basketball Head Coach Lesley Broadwell said in an email.
However, Broadwell also said stress can lead to positive results on the court by providing an outlet for everything causing the stress.
“I try to tell athletes to let the court or field be your oasis where you let stress go once you are out there — whether it’s anxiety over grades, friendship issues, boyfriend, family issues — we have to learn how to handle them,” Broadwell wrote.
Senior varsity volleyball player Lauren Swift said she has grown accustomed to the mix of school and sports in her schedule.
“Playing four hours a day for three days a week can be tiring. I miss assignments sometimes and I have to figure out a way to do it later,” said Swift.
Since she was 11, Swift has had the pressure of balancing academics and athletics.
But Swift doesn’t consider the situation negative all the time. She says the system works for her and, in the end, has been rewarding.
Like Sieracki and Swift, other athletes said they have dealt with stress from extracurricular activities. Swim team captain Sean McGinty has been swimming at the school for four years. This experience has taught him how he needs to prepare to do well, both in school and in the pool.
“I started swimming for the school team freshman year. By senior year I pretty much knew what I had to do to keep my grades up,” said Mcginty.
Fortunately for McGinty, he didn’t drive himself into the ground while dealing with both academics and athletics.
McGinty may have lost sleep some nights, but he said that looking back at his athletic experience, he doesn’t believe this hurt his overall health or sleep patterns.
Despite the obvious stress that school athletics brings, McGinty prefers to see it in a positive light.
“But it goes both ways,” said Mcginty, “When I swim, I usually work off some of the stress that I get from school.”