I’ve seperated myself from a culture of stress


Hanna Hornfeld, Staff Writer

When I started high school, I, like many of my classmates, was eager to start the journey ahead. I have always loved school, and every class felt new and exciting. Academically and personally, I had a great freshman year. 

Sophomore year, though, things began to change. Now that the excitement of being in high school had worn off, grades seemed to take up a lot more space in everyone’s minds. Many of my classmates would constantly talk about how worried they were for tests, how much each test could affect our final grades, and how nervous each class made them feel. I echoed these sentiments because, on the surface, I agreed with them. Yes, this test will be difficult. Yes, I will have to study a lot. Yes, I am stressed too. If we were unsure how to fill a silence or start a conversation we defaulted to the subjects of stress and sleep deprivation. The idea that work should always be on our minds seemed to be embedded in student life.

The energy was contagious. Soon enough I found myself internalizing it more deeply. By November of sophomore year, I was overwhelmed. The schoolwork itself wasn’t overwhelming, and I was getting good grades. But somehow, any amount of work felt heavy. I built up a negative association with schoolwork in my mind. Where I used to think “I have to write an essay about the amazing book I’m reading” with an emphasis on “amazing book,” I now focused on “I have to write an essay,” specifically, the newfound negative connotations of the said essay. The goal was no longer the outcome of my work but the achievement of a grade. It became mechanical.

My routine did not change at all. Go to school, come home, do homework. Eat a snack, watch some TV or read a little, go to sleep. Repeat. Go out with friends on weekends. Nothing was out of the ordinary, but my outlook had changed. Learning was no longer exciting; it was a chore. It was something draining that I sat down to do every day, and every day, though I was sleeping enough, I became more emotionally tired. The idea of work as a negative task and grades as a source of stress had seeped in.

Then the pandemic hit, the school moved online, and my mindset shifted again. Now that I was deprived of in-person school I remembered and missed everything I used to love about it. 

The first day of junior year was the most exciting first day of school I can remember. I was in person, surrounded by friends again. I had chosen to take all of my classes in subjects I loved. I was determined not to allow academic pressure to interfere with my love of school. Somehow I stopped thinking of bad grades or an abundance of work as issues weighing me down but rather just as occasional, slightly frustrating parts of life.

For a while, that went well. Even during times when I had a lot of work and was physically tired from it, I was happy. My renewed attitude protected me against the emotional drain. 

Then the notorious junior spring began, everybody around me was stressed out and I, again, was stressed out too. Suddenly, the sheer number of assessments meant that any given day had the potential to negatively impact my grades. The goal was no longer learning, maintaining or improving an average. Again I was burning out, unmotivated to do my work, and unable to relax because I felt guilty doing so. 

In psychologist Shawn Achor’s  TED Talk, “The happy secret to better work,” he talks about positive psychology in terms of academic and professional success. He argues that schools and workplaces have painted happiness as a prize to be won: get good grades, get into college, get a good job, then you will be happy. However, Achor tells us that people who do not rely on achievements for happiness are more equipped to reach their goals. They perform better in their workplaces because their mindsets allow them to.

As a school community and as a society we have internalized a mentality that to be happy we have to achieve our goals. How many times have you or a friend said, “I just have to get through this week?” I say it all the time. The problem with this logic is that by its standards, happiness and relaxation are impossible. I cannot rest at the end of the week because there will be another week right after it. If we only allow ourselves to be happy once we accomplish our goals, we will never be happy, because our goals are always in motion. 

As individuals and as a community we need to find ways to separate our happiness levels and our sense of self-worth from our academic performance. The culture in our society seems to put work above everything else. It feels as though we have glorified overworking ourselves for the sake of our classes. I doubt we will be able to remove this idea from our school’s culture any time soon, if ever. So, the next step is to work on this on a personal level.

Of course, we are faced with a lot of academic pressure and a heavy workload to which we cannot simply turn off our emotional response. However, we can try to make a conscious effort to focus on parts of our lives that bring us joy besides academic achievement. The more we focus on the negative aspects of work, the heavier an emotional burden work will carry. 

Though I wish I could share a perfect formula to accomplish this, it is an individual journey that will look different for everybody. For me, this is still a work in progress. I’ve found that it helps to catch myself when I am consumed by the negativity surrounding me and remind myself that I do not have to be worried about something just because everybody else is. 

Once in a while, it helps to do nothing for an afternoon. Sometimes a day of procrastination can be a positive thing if it will put me in a better place to accomplish my work the next day when I’ve rested. It helps to focus on the aspects of my classes that I love and making schoolwork fun for myself whenever possible. It helps to conversation starters besides “I have so much work” and “I’m tired.” In the fall, I will continue to take these small steps to stay positive during what is sure to be a work-intensive year, and I encourage all of you to do the same. We can’t go into the year expecting to completely and permanently change our mindsets, but these minor changes can be the first step to dismantling the culture of stress so deeply ingrained in our community.