At its most basic, stress is defined as any change or pressure in the environment. Most people think of stress as a bad thing, but in reality most people need some of it. “A little stress and in moderation can be helpful to high schoolers in so many ways. It motivates them to study, to do better. It helps push them,” says Mary Alvord, a psychologist specializing in teens based in Maryland. Adolescence is an important time to learn to deal with stress because teens can then deal with it better in college and in their adult lives.
But too much stress has many effects on the body and mind, Alvord says. In the short term it can cause anxiety; over long periods of time, elevated levels of stress hormones can degrade the immune system, cause heart problems, exacerbate respiratory and gastrointestinal issues, and bring on chronic anxiety and depression. That’s bad for anyone, but it can be especially bad for high schoolers: “Colleges are complaining that kids are disengaged, they’re dropping out, taking a long time to graduate. It’s not developmentally appropriate for them to work so hard,” says Gwadz, one of the authors of the recent study. And since everyone has a different psychological capacity for stress, it’s hard to know when a student is pushed to the point of degrading his or her health.
The study, published recently in the journal, Frontiers in Psychology, focused on students in two elite East Coast high schools, a population that has received surprisingly little research attention. The researchers surveyed and interviewed 128 students, teachers, and administrators about students’ stress levels and coping strategies. They found that 49 percent of students reported feeling “a great deal of stress” on a daily basis. Half reported doing three or more hours of homework per night, and 26 percent noted that they had been diagnosed with depression—over four times the national average of 6 percent.
Pinpointing where this stress is coming from is no easy task. “Students described that schoolwork, grades, and college admissions constituted their greatest sources of stress,” the study reads. But many students are only stressed about these things because they internalize pressures from parents, teachers, and peers. School culture undoubtedly plays a large role. “Indeed, chronic stress has been cited as the new ‘cultural currency’ in highly competitive private schools, where students often equate their schools’ level of rigor with the amount of stress experienced by its students,” the study authors write.
Importantly, chronic stress doesn’t just happen to privileged, wealthy kids—in fact, its effects are likely most pronounced on the upper and lower extremes of the socioeconomic ladder, says Bo Paulle, a sociology professor at the University of Amsterdam and author of Toxic Schools, which details Paulle’s years of field work in the South Bronx. But comparing stress levels at wealthy and high-poverty schools may prove to be an apples-to-oranges analysis because the causes are so different. “Schools are stressful at the bottom because of physical safety,” Paulle says, citing examples of dangerous scenarios to which some of the highest-poverty schools are prone: stabbings, gang activity, fights for perceived slights. And as a result the stress that these students experience is likely more intense—exponentially greater, Paulle estimates—and more woven into the fabric of their everyday lives than the stresses students experience at elite high schools. It’s hard to isolate the stressors at low-income schools from those outside of school, such as family issues or unstable living conditions. But even those parents who make their children’s education a top priority are often still powerless to prevent the stress that comes with the school environment. “Those parents don’t have economic or social resources to keep their kids out of these stressful schools,” Paulle says.