By MASON PUTT
In the middle of June 2019, I found myself in the hospital. Less than five hours later, delirious and weak, I performed as King Arthur in Monty Python’s Spamalot, the lead role. I found myself wondering “why do I do this to myself? How did I allow myself to get to this point?”.
I had been feeling sick all week, worn down and beaten by a thousand different commitments, culminating in the opening of the school show. On top of this, I had four NCEA internals due that week or the week after, sports practices and games, and the previous weekend I had just competed in the 48-hour film festival, which involved staying up to the early morning working on the film. All these compounding commitments gnawed away at me. I remember being so stressed I couldn’t eat or sleep until my body broke down because it simply couldn’t take the stress.
Since then, I have talked with many other teenagers about stress and how it affects them in their everyday life. I found that many students have had very similar experiences to mine, the stress of a build-up of commitments crushed them, like a camel with one too many pieces of straw on its back. So why does this happen?
We as teenagers these days deal with many of the same small stresses as adults do, such as what we are going to wear for the day, cereal before milk or milk before the cereal, the looming sense of inevitable doom as we understand more about the world around us, etc, etc, and that’s just before breakfast!
But we also have stresses particular to our age group. Mountains of school work, playing 20 different sports, participating in cultural activities, all at the same time as trying to maintain our busy social lives. Counsellor and full-time adult Sue Lewis spoke to me about how “the adolescent age group is figuring out how to be social animals”. What this means, essentially, is that we teenagers are learning how to function in an adult world. This involves sorting out our own social, political and ideological attitudes, and finding people who agree with us enough to become friends. In short, our high school days are where we become our own individual people.
When speaking with Lewis, she said that one of the most common issues that she sees with stress is around the social part of school, “Friendship stress is huge, along with relationships…
Students are in a difficult situation because they need approval”. From my point of view, Mrs Lewis is right… mostly. The social aspect of a students life can, and often will be, the most stressful part of their teenage years, and while I think stress around friendships and relationships are a large part of this, I don’t think that they are the only cause. In fact, I think that this friendship and relationship stress is merely a byproduct of the real culprit – being too damn busy.
Eve Scott, 18-year-old former student understatedly recalls “having way too much on [her] plate” during her time at high school. She juggled her commitments to many social events, reflecting “a lot of my stress over the past few years has come from overloading myself, then crackling under the pressure when I realized that I wasn’t able to complete everything I’d signed up for.”
Scott’s experience is one reflected in many of our lives. The build-up of pressures from every angle, be it school work, social events, sport, cultural activities, or a mix of all of these, can become too much to handle until we are overloaded by the strain. This, in my opinion, is what causes the most amount of stress in teenagers, as it leads on to so many other things, including this friendship and relationship stress.
Part of the reason so many of us overwork ourselves is related to an inability to say “no” when offered new opportunities. This is a problem caused by many different pressures and influences upon young people and I think it also relates to what Sue Lewis said about how students feel a “need for approval”.
An example of this feeling comes straight from my own experiences. As a Year 13 who has been involved in the arts for most of my time at school and who had heaps of respect for my teachers, I was honoured when I was asked to be in and help lead the school’s Stage Quest group. The issue was, I was already super busy and didn’t really see the appeal. Nevertheless, I agreed to help, though at the time I didn’t really understand why. Looking back on the event I can pick out particular reasons why I made this decision against my better judgement.
One of the major reasons was the sense of responsibility that I felt towards helping the arts at my high school develop and flourish, especially considering how much the arts have made me a better person and leader in the school community. Another is my reluctance to do anything that might disappoint my teachers. Finally, the feeling that I was expected to participate because I’ve been so heavily involved in similar cultural activities before. This all boils down to what Sue Lewis said about teenagers feeling like they need approval (even though we may refuse to admit it!).
The truth is I understand that I am a people pleaser, and the moment I put myself before any other commitment that weedling little voice at the back of my head deems it to be selfish. In short, I believe that the inability to say “no” to everything offered our way is a large contributor to stress. Society is always telling us that at our age we should take every opportunity with both hands, but what if both hands are already full?
Because of this inability to say no, students are forced to adopt busier and busier lives. But the stress doesn’t stop when you come home from hockey training or finish band rehearsal. Your mind becomes so trained to think about how you can manage your time, that it becomes an obsession. That’s right, we all are basically just the teenage angst version of Gollum.
Eve Scott, in between crows of “my precious” told me about her struggles with this. “Whenever I had a spare moment to breathe, instead I would go back to organizing or planning ahead my schedule for the future, or catching up with friends, and would never actually give myself some time just for me. Not allowing myself time for me was probably the biggest cause of stress in my life”. Sue Lewis said that she can see a lot of this in teenagers, “Sometimes you can’t control all of these demands, they are just being placed upon you whether you want it or not”. Her advice is to “Focus on what you can control” – a strategy that certainly sounds more useful than hiding under the duvet repeatedly muttering about how if you can’t see your problems they can’t see you. Too real?
It may not seem like it, but schools do see this problem and attempt to help, although in some cases the help that schools offer often can lead to more stress among their students. Scott relates how at her school they “had weekly Dean meetings in Year 13 where they’d give us tips with how to manage stress, along with other things about university and the future. However, I found they sometimes contradicted themselves, telling us not to worry about our future, yet expecting us to know what we wanted to do in our future… by the end of the year, the Year 13 common room was known for the place of panic attacks”. I think that this is the crux of the issue.
All our teenage lives we are told to look out for our future, to do things that are better for that future, even if they aren’t things that necessarily make us happy. One of my friends dropped painting, his preferred and best subject, in his final year at high school in order make, in his own words, “a lot more time to focus on his other subjects” which all lay in the sciences and are generally considered more likely to land a more affluent job in the future. The adults in our lives continue to tell us that these things become more important once we leave school and enter “the real world” as if the first 18 years of our lives are a free trial.
Here’s my take. I won’t disregard the fact that thinking about the future is important, but when it comes to 16, 17 and 18 year-olds, those thoughts are already running rampant through our heads. So my completely uneducated advice is that don’t forget to give yourself time to be a teenager. What I mean by this is every now and then, just give yourself a moment to have some fun, to forget about tomorrow and spend some time in the moment.
The trouble with leading too busy lives is that we often forget to step back, and just ‘be’, as hippyish as that sounds. You’ll have plenty of time to worry about adult thoughts when you are truly an adult, so don’t let yourself forget how to enjoy yourself before you have to, otherwise before you know it you’ll be making dad jokes and actually finding them funny.
Sitting down and writing this article has been one of the toughest pieces of writing I’ve ever had to do. Considering my experiences that might surprise you, it certainly surprised me. But the truth is that forcing myself to examine why I often feel the way I do and then putting down on paper was something that was extremely hard for me. What pushed me through was remembering who this article is for.
This article is for 2019 me. I wonder if I had read this paper, would it have helped me avoid pushing myself to and then past my breaking point? Truthfully, I don’t know, but from what I’ve seen since, the interviews I’ve done, the friendships made and broken, I know that teens overworking and overtaxing themselves is a huge issue in high schools.
I want to finish with something that really stuck with me after I spoke with Sue Lewis. She said that stress “comes down really to being more happy with yourself, understanding yourself, feeling ok with yourself”. Know your limits, don’t push too hard, and remember to have a little bit of fun. For the moment, worrying about the end of the world can come after breakfast.