How Academic Stress Can Lead to a Nervous Breakdown in Students and How to Avoid It

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A teen’s schedule is always busy. You’re probably juggling school, sports, extracurricular activities, family, friends, a part-time job, and a relationship all at the same time. You’re trying to get perfect grades while also dealing with a lot of social drama. And for those teens who are close to graduating, the pressure to get accepted into a university rises each year. Every time a new class graduates, the bar seems to rise just a little higher. You’re probably worrying about your future and agonizing over who you’ll become once you’re “all grown up.” Add to this the high expectations your parents, teachers, and society have for you—and the stress of keeping up can lead you to a nervous breakdown. Academic stress is a recurrent but unfortunate part of adolescence.

Teens often feel that they’re in a competition against classmates and even against time. The burden of being the best can quickly drown you into a pool of anxiety. According to a study performed by the American Psychological Association, 83 percent of teens identified academics as a “somewhat” or “significant” source of stress. Another 60 percent said that having to manage too many activities at once, was also a “somewhat” or “significant” stressor. Today’s clinicians are witnessing an evolving increase in the anxiety levels of teens. Our modern-day “race to success” culture has prompted teens to become worry-warts, over-achievers, and perfectionists. These traits can make it hard for teens to settle for only “good” grades—much less for those considered “average.” The real harm occurs when teens begin placing more importance on the end result than on the actual process of learning.

Signs of academic stress can show up through emotional, physical, behavioral, or cognitive reactions. You might experience agitation, paranoia, fatigue, depression, headaches, stomachaches, decreased concentration, forgetfulness, insomnia, or a change in eating habits. Stress can also weaken your immune system—making you more susceptible to getting sick.

Teens who are on the verge of an academic breakdown report feeling like they are “falling apart.” Becoming overwhelmed by schoolwork can also lead to other problems such as test anxiety. Test anxiety is the nervous feeling some people get on the day of a test. Teens who struggle with test anxiety might “blank out, freeze up, [or] zone out” right before starting a test. You might find it difficult to “get it together” and “respond to those questions you knew the answers to [the night before].” If you are always stressed and notice you frequently experience breakdowns, it may be time to change your habits. Realize that it’s impossible to check everything off your list.

Saying yes to one commitment may force you to say no to another

You won’t always be able to please your parent, teacher, coach, friend, or significant other—and that’s OK. Aim for a balanced life in which you can productively separate the important tasks from those that are optional. In other words, learn to prioritize. Too much or too little of something will negatively affect your schedule, but just the right amount can lead you to success. For example, multitasking is a sign that you’re doing too much, whereas boredom is a sign that you’re doing too little. Practice moderation across all your activities and keep your expectations in-check. Time management, organization, and goal-setting can help you prevent future academic breakdowns with confidence.

Eliminate procrastination

Resist the urge to put off work until the last minute. You’ll only end up working twice as hard and become frantic. Instead, be prepared and get a head start on any studying, required readings, and assignments. Most teachers give students plenty of notice for upcoming tests and projects.

Know your deadlines and plan accordingly

You don’t have to wait until you get home to start studying. Good studying starts with note-taking in the classroom. Write down facts and anything your teacher writes on the board. If you get intimidated by large projects, try chunking. “Chunking” is the process of breaking big tasks into smaller, more manageable parts. For example, you can make writing an essay easier by separating it into introduction, body, conclusion, works cited, etc.—and only work on one section at a time. One last tip is to prepare for school the night before. Pack your lunch, pick out your clothes, and organize your backpack so you can still have time for breakfast in the morning.

Utilize resources

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There are many tools out there that can help you organize your time and remind you of all due dates. Once you have your tasks recorded, it will be hard to forget them. You can use an agenda planner, make to-do lists, set up calendar alerts through your phone, or use any productive app of your choice. These tools not only help you keep track of assignments, but also of your sports practices, doctors’ appointments, and social events. Mapping out your weeks will help you conveniently distribute your workload. Plan out the amount of time you will dedicate to different tasks based on their priority. For example, you can set aside 30 minutes each Wednesday to study for a short quiz but reserve two hours every Monday to study for a big exam.

Designate a workspace

Establish a space that will only be used for academic work. This could be a study room, an office, a library—or anywhere else with a table or desk. Just make sure that this place is quiet enough for you to concentrate, and open enough for you to spread out all your work. Avoid working in loud, distracting environments. As soon as you sit down, your brain should be able to focus quickly and recognize that it’s there to work. This is why it’s probably not a good idea to study in a place such as your bed. You’ll either become too sleepy to study or your brain will learn to become hyperalert during your bedtime.

Organize your stuff

Being disorderly can result in more academic stress. Spending hours searching for a misplaced item means less time studying. Use binders, notebooks, or folders to keep your documents organized by subject. Don’t forget to regularly clean out your backpack and school locker. Throw away the things you no longer need and store any remaining class materials in a safe place. If you are constantly losing your papers and USBs, or are scared that your computer might spontaneously crash—consider using Google Docs to keep your assignments secure. Google Docs is a Gmail feature that saves your work in real-time and allows you to access it through any device with an internet connection.

Set up SMART goals

he goals that work the best are Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant, and Timely. “I’m going to get an “A” on my math exam by studying for an hour five days a week until September 12th,” is a much more doable goal than “I’m going to ace my test.” Moreover, repeating your goal can make it easier for you to stick to it. State your goal out loud or write it down to remind yourself of what you’re working toward. Set your goals into small steps and give yourself credit each time you accomplish one.

Consider a study group

Consider joining or starting a study group if you are feeling stressed about an upcoming test. Study groups can provide you with the extra practice needed to master a tricky subject. Students who are taking the same test can come together and use their unique strengths to counteract each other’s weaknesses. You can help one another review material, confirm accuracy of notes, and come up with creative ways to remember concepts. If you find group work distracting, it may be more beneficial for you to receive one-on-one tutoring with a subject expert.

Know your boundaries

Everyone has a limit. Learn to speak up when you have reached yours. If you suddenly realize you’re in over your head and have over-committed, don’t be afraid to ask for help. Most individuals have no problem being flexible as long as you are respectful, honest, and clear about what you have done, can do, and will do. Request an extension from your teacher, coach, or boss. Also, remember to take short breaks between studying to avoid burnout. Get up from your desk, stretch, and walk around to refresh your mind and stay focused.

Academic stress can be one of your biggest downfalls as a teen. But if you change your habits you will be more confident, relaxed, and will perform better in school. Learn to view your mistakes as learning opportunities and not as failures. Instead of always trying to be No.1, focus on your efforts and improvements. Your learning progress is more important than achieving perfection.

Don’t beat yourself up over small slip-ups. Lastly, remember to be present. The majority of academic stress comes from “what if…” thoughts, instead of actual reality. Limit discussions and thoughts about the future and start living in the moment.

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