High School is stressful! Years 11 and 12 are especially stressful with the added pressures and consequences of Stage 6 and the HSC. In this post we’re going to look at something different, we’ll discuss some strategies for coping with stress, anxiety, and depression during the HSC.
This post isn’t purely for Year 11 and 12 students. We’ve put together the information and links to resources here to help all students stay healthy and happy throughout their journey through High School.
What’s Mental Health, Really?
When we talk about “mental health,” we mean psychological well-being.
You’ve probably been told to look after yourself – eat well, sleep plenty, and exercise regularly to stay healthy. We often associate our health with the idea of being fit or avoiding a seasonal cold or flu. But often psychological and emotional health gets forgotten or ignored.
But mental health is equally important.
If we’re not in a state of psychological wellness, then our productivity and relationships suffer. If we’re stressed, anxious, or depressed then we can’t contribute to our communities or realise our own potential. If we’re in poor psychological health our marks suffer. This can lead to a negative cycle.
In High School, there’s often a big focus on academic success, sporting participation and excellence, and extracurricular activities. This can leave you feeling like you are balancing too many things at once.
If you’re struggling to balance these competing school demands with other things in your life, you can often feel like things are spinning out of control. Sometimes it can feel like struggling to do well in one thing can feel like we’re failing at all things.
Let’s be honest, there are lots of external pressures on you in High School – parents and relatives want to see you perform well, your coaches will want to see your team succeed, and then there are the pressures you might feel from social groups and interactions.
It can leave you feeling like everyone is trying to squeeze something out of you.
The HSC year can compound these issues because of the inordinate level of importance society places on the final exam and ATAR.
In this high-pressure environment, it’s easy to get caught up in training, studying, practising, and socialising and forget about looking after our own mental well-being.
Then we may feel like things start falling apart when one or two things go wrong. We can start stressing, becoming anxious, or getting depressed.
In this post, we’re going to have a look at some of the very common issues – stress, anxiety, depression – that students face and provide you with some tips and resources to help you cope.
What’s Stress and How Do I Cope With it?
Stress is the physical response your body has when you feel that you have more being asked of you than you can reasonably provide.
As a consequence of these pressures, our body releases a complex mix of hormones and other compounds, such as adrenaline.
Stress can make you feel tense, anxious, sweaty, irritable, and tired. When stressed some people become withdrawn, others might become clumsy, while others will undergo drastic changes of weight. Almost everyone becomes short-tempered when they are stressed.
Stress isn’t a bad thing, it’s important that our bodies respond to environmental conditions with stress responses. Such things have helped humanity survive for thousands of years. But facing down a sabre-tooth tiger and deciding on a fight or flight response is very different from dealing with the often unseen pressures of High School and contemporary life.
When we’re face-to-face with a giant furry predator a hefty dose of adrenaline is a good thing, it helps us decide whether to run or fight and then follow through with the running.
But the downside of a lot of these chemicals is that they limit our capacity to think clearly.
So, when you’re sitting at a desk trying to solve that quadratic equation or write that difficult essay, a dose of adrenaline is going to make it hard for you to focus and think.
When we’re stressed and can’t think, we stress more about not getting things done – it becomes a nasty cycle!
Stress is an inevitable thing, but it’s important that you learn to recognise it and know how to deal with it.
1. How do I tell if I’m stressed?
There are some common signs that people show when they are stressed. Some are emotional, some are physical, others are behavioural, and some are cognitive.
Let’s have a look at a few of them:
You may start feeling indigestion as if your food hasn’t gone down correctly
Some people develop rashes or have flare-ups of eczema and other skin complaints
You may feel a tightness in your chest
Or maybe your heart starts racing whenever you are confronted with a new task
You may find yourself becoming forgetful
You may start making irrational or hasty decisions that are out of character
Otherwise confident individuals begin doubting their abilities
You might find yourself doing many things at once, but finishing and achieving little
Or perhaps you’re finding it difficult concentrating on what people are saying or tasks they are meant to be doing
When stressed you may become moody and irritable
Feelings of being overwhelmed or frustrated are common signs of stress
You may feel down if you are constantly stressed
You may find yourself sleeping poorly
Or losing your appetite
Do you find yourself drinking more coffee or energy drinks?
Sometimes stress causes us to lose motivation
You might find yourself craving alone time or be isolating yourself from others in an unusual way
2. What do I do if I feel this way?
The first step is to talk to somebody.
Talking to others allows us to get things off our chest and explore why we’re feeling the way we do. If you are feeling stressed you should talk about this with:
3. Don’t be afraid to take a step back from things
Sometimes, when we’re deep in the middle of something – be it study, work, or a stressful relationship – we can find it very hard to get a sense of the big picture.
Have you ever felt that something was so overwhelming that you couldn’t see how you’d ever survive it, only to get past it and look back on it and think, “why was I so stressed over that?”
This happens because we can’t get a view of the bigger picture when we’re concerned with the minutiae of things.
If you can force yourself to put something to one side for a few hours or a couple of days, you will often come back to it with a new perspective where you can see better how it fits into your priorities or how difficult the task actually is. Treating stressful projects in this manner makes them easier to deal with.
4. Take a break
Stress happens because we work hard and push ourselves. It may seem counter-intuitive, but it is often best to take a break from things and rest rather than push through.
You will be surprised how much more productive you will become if you are calm and rested rather than tired and hyped up. Remember, stress releases all sorts of hormones and chemicals into your body that will get you edgy and alert, but limit your cognitive processes.
Adrenaline may make you feel like you’re being super productive, but when you look back at that work later you’ll discover that it isn’t as thorough, detailed, or comprehensive as what you thought.
If you are starting to question your productivity and stress levels, then that’s the sign you need to take some time out.
So, how should you take a break?
Have a nap
Eat some food
Go for a walk
Hang out with some mates
Read a book
What shouldn’t you do when having a break?
Trawl social media
Binge a season of Attack on Titan on Netflix
Spend five hours playing Fortnite
When you relax you want to make sure that you take stressors out of your environment. Excessive amounts of screen time will not relieve you. Fortnite and other games may feel like they’re destressing you, but really they’re just introducing an additional, albeit different, stress into your life.
Similarly, while one episode of your fave show isn’t a bad thing, a full season is liable to make you procrastinate and then stress and feel guilty about not studying for that maths exam.
Getting regular sleep and exercise, maintaining a healthy diet, and focusing on staying calm are the best vaccines against overt stress.
Unfortunately, you’re going to feel stressed during high school. Learning how to recognise the signs of stress and then have management strategies is an essential means of dealing with stress.
5. Practise Mindfulness
An excellent way of combatting stress is mindfulness. mindfulness is a form of meditation where you draw your attention to things that are happening to you in the present moment.
Mindfulness is a reflective practice that involves specific exercises designed to help you address issues and problems in your life and then overcome them.
When you practise mindfulness, you are in a relaxed state. This makes it easier to deal with and face difficult or stressful situations.
Here are some resources that will help you learn more about mindfulness and begin practising it:
Having a consistent routine and regular study plan will help alleviate pressure and stress.
When we’re not organised, it’s very easy for things to get away from us. This is particularly true when you’re juggling school subjects, family, sport, and extra-curricular activities and maybe a weekend job. Having a timetable and study plan and sticking to it will help you stay on top of things.
Anxiety is something that can be treated and overcome. but it is important that you speak to your family GP (doctor) and school counsellor if you feel like you are suffering from anxiety. If you are unsure of who to turn to when dealing with anxiety, check out this detailed list from BeyondBlue.
It’s very important that you seek help when you start feeling anxious rather than letting things build up and get on top of you.
You wouldn’t be human if you didn’t feel down or unhappy from time to time. Life can be a struggle and sometimes it gets on top of us. But experiencing this for a long time or intensely is a sign of depression.
High School can go from feeling like no big thing to an overwhelming all-consuming weight in the time it takes for your teacher to hand out an assessment notification.
This is especially true of Years 11 and 12 and the HSC.
The HSC and Trial HSC, in particular, place a significant amount of social and academic pressure placed on students.
While it’s true that your ATAR has an impact on what university course you can get into straight out of university. A weak ATAR is not the end of the world.
You will have greater success at high school if you can uncouple your study of subjects from your ATAR goal. It’s important to have an ATAR goal, but it shouldn’t be all-consuming to the point that you lose heart if you don’t meet your expectations.
It’s important that you take a step back regularly and evaluate all of your school endeavours – academic, extra-curricular, and sporting – so that you can see the positives shining through the negatives. Reevaluating your whole life will both show you the positives to focus on and give you some options about how to reorganise your life if you’re overburdened.
You must remember that you can drop some activities, sports, or drop down to 10 units of study if you think it will help you perform better at school. Don’t be afraid to have serious conversations with your coaches, parents, and teachers about this.
Most importantly, remember that “you are not your ATAR.” I know this gets repeated a lot. But it bears repeating because of the amount of importance that the media, politicians, and parents place on ATARs.
There are always other routes to achieving what you want to be and do.
If you’re struggling to keep things in perspective it is important that you talk to people about this. If you need an ear, sit down with a friend or parent, or go see your GP.
Looking out for your mates
While it’s tantamount that you keep a close eye on your own mental health, it’s important that you look out for your mates through High School and beyond.
Peer support is an important way of dealing with stressful situations. You might find it comfortable to open up unprompted by your friends, but this isn’t the case for everyone. Some people have a hard time talking about their feelings and emotions.
Because of this, people can tend to bottle things up. If you see one of your friends consistently getting consistently down or pissed off, try and talk to them about it. If they don’t want to discuss it, try steering them towards discussing it with a professional.
The school environment can be challenging for anyone – whether you experience conflict with peers, or struggle with academics. Difficulties are something that everyone faces, even those who seem most together.
School is often a place where I am plagued with anxiety due to communication difficulties and sensory overload. And, for a long time, this inhibited my ability to learn.
My saving grace was a final goal; to get accepted into a medical course when I go to University.
Due to this, I absolutely recommend having something that drives you through your studies in the final years of school.
Strategies I used that can be applicable to nearly any situation are