With several AP classes to study for and SATs to worry about, it’s like there’s no time to even think about breathing, because at any given moment there are about 12 different things you have to worry about doing. Staring at homework for hours, I could get to a point where my whole body was so numb with exhaustion that I felt almost outside of myself, like my brain was, with no help from me, balancing chemical equations and telling my hand to write them down without engaging any emotionally active response in my heart or head. It’s not that I didn’t want to engage with what I was learning, or that I didn’t care about it, but there were all these different things barreling at me from all these different directions, and my brain shut down the way it does in times of crisis or trauma, so that only the immediately necessary things got done and everything else stops. I knew the “necessary” things—homework, studying, essays, review—were not as important as my emotional well being, but I made the conscious short-term sacrifice of my a healthy emotional life in order to meet statistical standards that I placed for myself and that selective colleges demanded. I had emotional responses to things, but they were tangled up in or smothered by stress and the strive for success, and it was hard to find any purity of emotional experience unless I was entirely separate from my own internal push for achievement.
As a result, my mental health suffered. I’ve always been anxious, but the stress intensified my physical experiences of anxiety. People thought my panic attacks were about tests, but it was the tests and the academic material that I was most confident about because all of my time had been devoted to preparing for them. It wasn’t the academics that made me anxious, but the deep and intense emotions inside of me that I had covered up and set aside as I doggedly pursued academic success. I don’t think the learning environment of high-achieving students is a healthy one by any means, but I think it’s one a lot of people struggle through to get into certain colleges or to pursue certain careers. I don’t think there’s an easy way out of it, and my advice to anyone in that type of environment is to cling to what you love; cling to your friends, and to the knowledge you care about, the knowledge that leads you toward greater understanding of the world and greater empathy and love for yourself and others. The academic system values numbers but I think you have to value more than that, so that if you fail you are left with love for something, so that there is an emotional and spiritual value to what you have learned. Also, if you’re struggling with emotional problems or mental health issues, telling teachers is scary but they will be probably be amazingly understanding with helping you through the academic stuff and supporting you emotionally if need be. Telling friends is helpful too. It gets easier if you can talk about it.