The Stress Hierarchy of the 21st Century

Katie Quigley

It is widely understood that American high school students have extremely high standards for themselves so therefore have equivalent levels of stress. As a practicing member of this highly strung population of students, the only metaphor I can use to describe my stress level is that of a balloon which, if it receives one more ounce of air, will pop. It would make sense that American teenagers would try to relieve this daily tension; however, this pressure seems to have had an opposite effect.



The obsession with having ridiculously high grades, for most students, starts in middle school, and snowballs from that point on. By the time high school began, I, along with most of my friends, had a hard time accepting anything lower than an A. We were, and still are, very naive, and instead of being excited for this new chapter of life, we were constantly on edge. At first, we didn’t know what to do with ourselves; yet, eventually, our daily stress became more of a competition than a major internal issue.


Once we were used to high school, our unhealthy ideas and conversations started. It seemed that, if you had stayed up all night for two nights in a row because you were writing an essay, you gained a reputation as being a diligent and hardworking student. Like the famous Will Smith quote goes, “While the other guy is sleeping, I’m working. While the other guy is eating, I’m working.” To us, it only made sense that putting in more hours of work would generate higher-quality work than the student who, for example, was eating balanced meals and sleeping every night. Soon, we were doing everything that is proven to increase stress levels: getting minimal sleep, not eating, and drinking lethal amounts of coffee throughout the day; we were separating ourselves from the rest of the world so that we could get our work done.

I soon found myself competing with the kids in my classes; whoever crammed in the most studying was deemed the pinnacle of our social triangle. I’ve had more than a few of my friends tell me that being unbearably stressed out “makes them feel better” as students and as human beings. Kids are proud of themselves if they stay up all night or if they live off of nothing but coffee for an entire day. Unfortunately, enhancing stress is a hard habit to break.

Most students are unaware of how high their stress levels are because of the way they have adapted to this lifestyle. After a while, you become numb to it. However, none of this is normal. I shouldn’t have to feel guilty because I got an adequate amount of sleep, or because I studied less than someone else. Handling a normal amount of stress every day is hard enough; I shouldn’t have to glorify it to feel better about myself.