• Gaby Pickin

High School: Anxiety and Stress


The High School Experience

Primary school to high school:

The jump from primary school to high school can seem massive, but after the first week or so the atmosphere and schedule feel natural and comfortable. You adjust really quickly and, for the most part, will find ways to enjoy your high school experience.

However, there are parts of high school that are bound to cause stress and anxiety. Internal exams, like end of term or end of year exams, can seem like the be-all or end-all of your high school career, but trust me: they’re not. These exams are often simply used to assess your progress and see if there is any more support that teachers need to offer, so don’t put too much unhealthy pressure on yourself to get perfect grades if it’s causing anxiety.

Managing stress within school:

I’ll give the obvious bit of advice first: stay on top of homework. This is a key cause of stress in school because when you let homework pile up everything seems to spiral out of control. Most people would rather do anything else besides homework, but doing it the afternoon you get it frees up a lot of time later on and ensures you don’t have a last-minute panic about the fact that you have 5 hours’ worth of homework due in for the next day.

I think it’s probably important to mention the stress caused by friendships, too. High school, especially the first few years, is a hectic time for friendships; there are so many new people who you are either going to like or not. Friendships may end and that can be really difficult and stressful, so just make sure you look after yourself and aren’t afraid to branch out and develop new relationships. Of course, it is important to be respectful and not disregard the feelings of others, but if you are in a toxic friendship or simply a friendship that you feel you have outgrown, don’t feel as if you have to remain friends with those people. No one is entitled to your friendship if it is causing you unnecessary stress and anxiety.

If you are really struggling with anxiety the best option is to talk to your form tutor and your teachers and help them to understand how you are feeling and what you are comfortable with, regarding participation in class. I’ll be honest, not all teachers are understanding, but most will try to help in some way because they want to find a way for you to get value from and enjoy your high school experience. I was able to talk to some of my teachers about anxiety and was given some leeway regarding presentations or being asked questions in class. Of course, this wasn’t a free pass for me not to participate in class, they were simply more supportive and sensitive about how often they asked me to speak up and helped me to gradually build up my confidence with participation.

Lower school to upper school:

The jump from the lower school years of high school to the upper (GCSE) years can also seem daunting: high school suddenly seems to become more serious. There is a heavier workload and, of course, the now looming exams…

Exam Stress

I did my GCSEs last year, did my AS levels this year and have my A levels next year. That’s a lot of exams and a lot of stress.

I don’t really think I was in the right frame of mind to do my AS levels, no one was. We had all done our GCSEs less than a year ago, so were still in ‘post-exam mode,’ it didn’t seem right to be going straight into two more years of exams. For me, this year has involved a lot of procrastination, which isn’t helpful for managing stress. As hypocritical as it is, I feel like you need to really motivate yourself to do the work and revise in order to have the best emotional and mental well-being during the lead up to exams.

I think my main piece of advice regarding exam preparation is extremely generic and unoriginal: start revision early. I’m pretty confident that you would’ve heard that before…many, many times. When I was going in to year 11, there was so many people who had just done their GCSEs repeating the same advice about revision. After a while I just got bored of it and stopped listening, without really processing that advice. It seems obvious: to pass your exams you need to be as prepared as possible, but I guess the idea of spending hours on end revising for exams that are so distant in the future doesn’t seem worth it, you want to do enjoyable things instead. I’m not saying don’t have fun; no matter how many exams you have, you need to carve out time for yourself to relax or do something exciting with friends and family. Little amounts of revision continued over long periods of time is generally the best strategy and is much more beneficial than massive, overwhelming chunks of revision done in the few weeks leading up to the exams.

Yes, GCSEs are important, but you have to remember that the world isn’t going to end if you fail. Resits exist, so it isn’t as if you have to live with bad grades forever if you want to improve them. It’s also important to note that, during exams, stress is normal and you’re not alone: every 15 – 18 year old in the country is going through exactly the same thing, so there are many people who will understand, for you to talk to about it.

Self-Care Tips

Some of these tips are things that have helped me cope with my anxiety issues or things that I’ve tried and found they didn’t work for me. Just because they didn’t help me doesn’t mean they don’t work, everyone is different so you may find some of these coping mechanisms actually work well for you.

Breathing Exercises:

‘Box breathing’ is the best panic-attack-prevention technique I’ve found (so far at least). Basically, you find a square or rectangular shaped object and use the sides to monitor your breathing. Follow the lines of the shape with your eyes; breathing in along one side, breathing out along the other, and so on. It takes a while but eventually you’ll calm down because you focus so much on the box breathing task that you gradually forget about the anxiety. I would suggest trying this, even if you are sceptical, because I strongly believe this technique helps.

Talk To Someone:

This is probably the most difficult task on this list, but the most important. Anxiety is a very personal issue that is often kept quiet due to worries of judgement or the inability to express your feelings. Luckily, conversations about anxiety are becoming more common and open. You should try and talk to someone you trust, whether that is friends, family or teachers. Talking to someone is the first step to getting help. You never know, you may talk to someone and find that they have had similar experiences and can offer advice, or maybe they can just offer care and support for you.

Maintain Your Physical Health:

This is another big one: anxiety can dramatically affect physical health through lack of sleep, loss of appetite or illness. Throughout your struggle with feelings of anxiety, or exam stress, it’s important to remember to look after yourself because constant stress or anxiety could potentially cause illness, due to a weakened immune system. Your body is not built to maintain feelings of anxiety so it is physically exhausting, therefore, you need to remember to get the right amount of sleep. Also, a balanced diet can work wonders; helping you feel refreshed energised and prevent illness, all of which are especially important during exam season.

Honestly, this is general advice for everyone, regardless of anxiety, but I think it’s important to include because sometimes it is easy to forget the basics when you are so focussed on stressful situations.

Keep A Diary:

Personally, I’ve always found diaries difficult to maintain: I get bored or forget to update it and it just becomes an unorganised mess. But, some people find keeping a diary incredibly useful and rewarding. It can be a diary that simply logs your feelings of anxiety and panic-attacks, in order to find patterns and triggers OR it can be a day-to-day diary that, again, tracks feelings of anxiety, but also records positive events. These are good to look back on to gain perspective: it’s easy to remember all the bad things and forget the good, but a diary can act as a compiled list of all your happy memories and achievements.

Always try to acknowledge your achievements, no matter how small the achievement may seem in comparison to the rest of the world, you should feel proud. Don’t feel silly for getting excited about getting out of the house by yourself, or answering a question in class, or ordering your own food at a restaurant – if that is something you struggle with then you deserve to celebrate the step forward. Remember not to beat yourself up if you can do one of these things one day and not the next, it’s a slow process and takes time to build up to it. Just know that there are people who are proud of all of your small achievements.

The best advice I can offer is to relax and enjoy yourself. Don’t let these unnecessary pressures that are laid on you by high school ruin your summer.

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