For many, thoughts of one’s childhood and teenage years can evoke a sense of freedom and carefree bliss. But, even those who had a relatively stress-free childhood perhaps forget, or at least romanticise, their younger years to some degree, forgetting the anxiety, work overload, and stress-induced procrastination that study bought with it. Because while the concerns of younger people are different, they still feel urgent nonetheless.
Education has increasingly become a major concern, with ‘Block Week’ the critical turning point in the school year. Block week describes students’ self-directed study time before regular classes begin or before examinations. Students are expected to direct their learning as best suits them in this week-long period, causing a real sense of anxiety in the lead-up to the standardised tests.
College enrolment has been dropping worldwide over the last decade, particularly in the last few years since COVID-19. The drop in confidence surrounding higher education comes during a spight of cutbacks to staff and course options as well as increasing student debt, longer loan periods, and a desperate jobs market that is calling for more labourers and fewer university-educated applicants.
However, this stress creates a disconnect between a culture that values higher learning as the best possible career path and the reality many young people face when considering a degree in today’s job market.
Desire to achieve.
By the time students move on to university, around 80% show symptoms of stress. Around 19% of year 12 students can be classified as clinically stressed going into their final year of schooling. 68% of students have trouble focusing, 39% report poor nutrition, and 57% report trouble sleeping.
Parental pressure is one of the problems, but these figures also stem from a wider pressure to study and achieve amid an increasingly competitive market, especially one competing internationally with students from around the world. But this, too, is only part of the story.
Predisposition to anxiety.
The number of reports of generalised anxiety has increased over the last decade, affecting around one in four young Australians in their teenage years. The lack of confidence in the ability to complete coursework and general anxiety around social situations, demanding tasks, and decision-making tends to outweigh the fear aspect of the labour market or choosing a university.
This means schooling is not the only course of anxiety and stress. An increased awareness of anxiety in young people has shed light on a condition that has (quite possibly) always existed — a condition that is due to a difficult transition from childhood into adulthood.
Block week intensifies these feelings of anxiety. With the structure of classes removed, the stress of studying, the loneliness of working alone, and the fear of disappointment add to the underlying stress, particularly in cases where the student already has underlying anxiety or stress-related issues.
Normal responses to stress.
It’s entirely normal, when anxiety begins, to feel overburdened by a workload that can’t be managed. No matter how a timetable is structured, the task seems overbearing.
This is where procrastination comes into play. Procrastination is the body’s response to the flight or fight fear stimulus. When danger is present, the brain switches into a different mode of thinking and makes decisions based on a whole new rationale.
The brain first demands removal from the circumstance, provoking fear. We may rationalise to ourselves, in these moments, that we can’t begin yet; we need to check our emails, respond to a text, watch a video, or do anything else but confront the task at hand. The brain then releases dopamine as a reward for alleviating the stress, and so we feel good about procrastinating — until we remember to start studying again.
After a while, this becomes a habit that’s hard to break, even with a deadline looming.
Depression is another common feeling where the task becomes impossible, and the ability to just ‘do it’ isn’t an option. Depression can cloud all thinking and make it impossible to focus. If this is the case, it’s time to talk to someone and potentially seek professional help.
Coping with anxiety, stress, and work overload.
So how do you conquer these three inner demons? While there’s no solid method to rid them completely, there are ways of reducing the fear and retraining the brain into positive thinking grooves;
- Break the big task into smaller tasks. The reason a lot of tasks are anxiety-inducing is that they look so huge it’s hard to know where to begin. If that’s the case, try breaking away the ‘anxiety mountain’ into smaller, recognisable ‘chunks’. So, instead of ‘learn algebra’, the first task is ‘read chapter 1’ or ‘Google imaginary numbers’.
- Make a study plan. It may sound obvious, but a study plan can help prevent overwhelming stress and the feeling of disconnect. Factor in time to get things wrong or chase things up too. Your plan is a guideline to learn by, not the prison warden, for your time. A good plan should serve your interests first.
- Study with others. If you’re feeling cut off or alone, finding a core group to study with isn’t bad but integral to your mental health.
- Factor in time for the self. Brains aren’t designed to absorb information constantly, nor are you procrastinating if you’re not studying 24/7. Time to let loose and ‘play’ allows the brain to recover and make the connections necessary for memory building and better mental health.
- Look after the body. We all need sleep and proper nutrition to function. Poor mental health is often due to a chemical imbalance that can be furthered by insufficient rest or proper food.
- Be kind to yourself. No one is expected to know all the answers. While we’re told that we need to decide what we want in life at an early age, the reality is that people constantly change over their lives, changing jobs and professions years or even decades into their careers.
- Mindful refocusing. If the stress or feeling of being overwhelmed is too much, try a breathing or mindfulness exercise to pause and slow down the overwhelming thoughts. One common technique is to picture an empty highway and then populate that highway with cars. You decide when each car passes. Watch it go past and observe it. Each car represents a thought you’re allowing to pass through and analyse.
- Get help. If things seem desperate or you’re experiencing overwhelming thoughts of self-harm, it’s important to contact someone immediately. Call Kids Helpline on 1800 55 1800 or Lifeline on 13 11 14 in an emergency or just to talk things through.
It’s ok not to know what to do. Studying doesn’t agree with everyone. But whether your ultimate goal lies in higher learning or not, taking care of yourself is essential, especially during high-stress times such as block week. Because mental health is a lot like physical health — there is a limit to how far it can be stretched.
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