The other day, I overheard a news story extolling the virtues of yoga in combating stress.  That was fine.  Yoga has proved to be of great value for people in high stress conditions. What absolutely floored me was the section on elementary and secondary schoolchildren.  This is far from the first time I’ve run across the issue of stress in schools.  In fact, most of the college students at my wife’s university complain about how stressed they are.  One of the most common phrases is:  “I’m so stressed out.”

What I want to know is why they think their lives are so stressful. Are their lives really filled with that much stress?  Have they created that stress themselves because they’ve filled so much of their lives with the time-consuming trivialities, such as texting, Facebook, and video games, that they’ve left no time for the necessary?  Or have they been so coddled that any pressure on them to perform and meet any type of reasonable standards creates stress?

I know I’ll sound like an old fogy, but… the generation represented by their great grandparents faced the worst economic conditions in more than a century and the largest world-wide conflict in human history. The generations before that faced the First World War and, before that, the Civil War, the bloodiest war in U.S. history. In all these cases, most young men faced the pressure of being drafted and dying in battle.  Their grandparents faced the Vietnam conflict, largely fought by conscripted forces, plus wide-spread civil unrest with bloody riots across the nation… and far wider racial and cultural discrimination, not to mention gender/sexual discrimination,  than any of today’s young people can possibly imagine. 

In the past, although the youngsters of today don’t believe it or understand it, academic standards were either far more rigorous… or the local schools were truly terrible.  Until the 1950s, polio was an ever-present threat, and I still recall contemporaries of mine in wheelchairs and braces. Academic curricula were rigid and unyielding, and woe betide the student who was different, or ADHD, or developmentally challenged.  First year students in college faced opening assemblies where they were told that a large percentage of entering students would fail academically within a year.

Today’s students are told how wonderful they are.  They have extraordinarily high grade point averages, and almost none of them are failed.  College students today spend less than half the time studying  as students of their parents’ generation did, but there are more scholarships and far more financial aid than was available a generation earlier. Even if they drop out of school, they don’t face being drafted into a war where tens of thousands of conscripts die.   And yet… huge numbers of them have little motivation and no goals.  

And  they’re stressed out.

 Stress is and has always been the human condition.  Welcome to the real world.


12 thoughts on “Overstressed?”

  1. Derek says:

    Thank you for this. This has been on my mind for a while now, and I could never find the words for it.

  2. Joe says:

    It has been shown that self control takes effort (and glucose). We have a limited supply of it, although we can train it. I posit that stress is the feeling of overtaxing one’s self-control “muscle”.

    I think people consume more sugar than when you were young. Overconsumption of sugar hurts our sugar regulation (insulin surges causing diabetes over time, and perhaps even some classes of Alzheimer’s). So many people lack glucose when they actually need it, but suffer from illnesses due to consuming too much of it.

    Simultaneously, instant communications, multitasking, very fast animations as child TV all mean children do not learn to concentrate on a single task. That means they have not learnt self-control.

    The self-control muscle isn’t just a metaphor, one’s brain actually changes. There’s a particular kind of meditation where one simply follows one’s breath in and out, and returns one’s awareness to the breath when a thought distracts one. Essentially one is practicing the self-control of mindfulness. The brains of people who practice this meditation grow inhibitor neurones between the neo-cortex and the amygdala — physiologically these neurones suppress fear (i.e. stress).

    Add these two factors together, and you have people who are indeed stressed, not because their world is worse, nor because they are whiners, but because of the way their brains and bodies have developed. In my opinion, anything to improve people’s self-control is a good thing.

  3. Chris says:

    While I agree with some of what you say, I think you are glossing over some of the challenges students currently face. They do have some causes of stress that weren’t as prevalent in the past.

    1) The cost of a 4 year degree has been consistently outpacing inflation, with annual increases (after inflation) averaging 4.5% in the 80s, 3.2% in the 90s, and 5.6% in the 2000s. Yet during this time, the amount of grants and scholarships as a percentage of tuition and fees has remained relatively constant, going between 49.6% in 2001 and 51% in 2011.

    2) The number of students attending college has increased substantially, going from 10.6 million in 1985 to 21 million in 2010, while the US population only went up by 30% in that same timeframe. Additionally, the increase has predominantly been among groups with less financial resources than in decades past. This means the students are more likely to have to do work-study programs and take larger student loans, and in many cases the students have to work at least one full-time job at the same time.

    3) The economy has changed in the past 40 years such that a high school diploma is no longer sufficient to support yourself or a family, as the number of blue collar jobs has declined significantly. In fact, because the economy adjusted to a norm of both people in a relationship working, a single salary with a college degree is no longer sufficient in most cases.

    4) Students today keep hearing that this is “the worst economy since the Great Depression.” Additionally, the economy has changed in the past 40 years such that a single person’s salary has, on average, much less buying power. This affects couples after graduation as in years past they would be able to support a salary with a single job and without a college degree.

    So while todays students don’t have to worry about being conscripted into a war, they are definitely facing a wall of financial challenges and are being shown a bleak outlook to boot.

  4. Mayhem says:

    I suspect that the elementary schoolchildren are not in fact stressed as adults understand it. They are put under light pressure, but the (dis)stress they show actually comes down from their parents, who are projecting their own feelings onto their children.
    Small children don’t understand time constraints well – their brains don’t develop a good idea of action and consequence until they start to mature. This means they simply cannot experience the kind of compiling stress a working adult suffers from. Instead they tend to suffer from very short term distress that goes away when the impetus abates – either the task finishes or the day does, but once the thing is done the pressure is gone.

    Secondary students certainly do suffer periods of intense stress, particularly when examined as each level of education comes to a climax and the year is called due. The remainder of the time though they are generally not stressed much at all. This is one reason for the shift to continuous evaluation – to spread the pressure burden across the school year rather than concentrating it at the end.

    Students in Japan on the other hand definitely experience severe stress at certain times. Junior high students are relatively carefree. Senior high students get more and more pressure applied as they get towards finishing, and then most enter *very* high pressure cram schools to prepare them for the prestigious university entrance examinations. They then burst. Japanese students who are between high school and university, or between university and working life are famous for outrageous fashion statements and bizarre lifestyle choices, for the simple reason that this is the only point in their lives where it is allowed. School is heavily regimented, and the working life of a salaryman is socially constrained.

  5. Wine Guy says:

    We worry too much about protecting kids from things. If we want them to actually be able to function in the real world, then they have to learn how to function while dealing with stress. Anything that helps improve self-control can only be a good thing, since some parents seem unable to help instill it in their own children.

    I see this in other areas of life as well. In the medical profession, resident physicians are limited to an 80hour work-week… but they lose the ability to function when they are short on sleep. Part of ‘Old-School Residency training’ was teaching them how to understand and learn the process of critical thinking and making good decisions when under severe stress. Now that this is gone, there is a definite difference in ‘middle of the pack’ physicians. The good ones remain good, the bad ones remain bad, and the ‘middle of the road’ are more like ‘middle of the gravel path.’

    Stress has its place in life. “Protecting” people from learning how to deal with stress in controlled situations creates a person who will do badly in real life until they have a couple (or more) disastrous experiences.

  6. Wine Guy says:

    On top of that, ‘stress out’ is a terribly relative term. An outsider cannot tell another person how to feel. An outsider can say how much worse things were way back when, but the person’s reality is in the here and now.

    And any teen or adolescent is going to ignore what those of us over age 30 say, no matter how sensible it is to us. And if stress is part of the human condition (which only fools would deny), they’ll get their portion soon enough – whether they are prepared for it or not.

  7. K B says:

    I guess I disagree here. I see and work with a lot of kids and I believe they do have legitimate stress, some of them anyway. Some, it is true, have never learned discipline or time management skills. But others struggle ith working to support their family and then go to school, juggling both. Many students in college or community college (for the poorest) have to struggle paying for school , helping their parents and siblings economically and finding time to study. I am thinking of one 22 year old man I know who works to support his mom who is slow (though he is very bright) while carrying a full load most semesters. In addition, he helps his younger siblings with money to buy clothes and to afford dental care. His father died wen he was fifteen. There LOTS of these kids in college and in high school and they usually say nothing to teachers or even to their friends out of shame. They may admit to stress but rarely to the details. As poverty for most people increases in the US, there will be more such stressed students.

    1. Tim says:

      To KB. And I bet the people you mention never state they are “overstressed”. These are the people who are really strong.

  8. K B says:


    Such people, like the 22 year old I mentioned, rarely admit to feeling overstressed. And he is the kind of kid you feel proud to know. He is unselfish and kind and suffers stoically, really never bitter about the cards he’s been dealt. He is also the type of person who has gotten wildly drunk as a way to cope. But that is the worst that can be said of him. He keeps trying. He’s a trooper. Where does character like his come from?

  9. Both my wife and I have seen young people similar to the one you describe, and they truly cope with difficult circumstances, but the problem is that there are far too many of the other kind, who get “overstressed” at the slightest pressure or disruption of their routine.

  10. Wine Guy says:

    So, just like any other time in history, the few are called upon to do much so that the many don’t seem to notice that anything is really going on.

    Situation Normal, All Fouled Up… and those of us who work and put in the time are still in there digging away in the salt mines to make sure everything else goes smoothly.

    nihil novi sub sole

  11. Ellie Coral says:

    I know this is an old post, but when I read this Cracked.com article, I couldn’t help but think of what you wrote. Turns out there’s also science behind young people feeling stressed (it’s #4, but the rest of the article is also worth a read): http://www.cracked.com/article_20146_5-ways-high-school-really-does-suck-according-to-science.html

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