Dealing with school stress: its causes and how to manage it

Receiving an education is an important step in the lives of many — it can be both useful and rewarding. However, school is often a cause of stress and anxiety for a large number of students. While it can seem overwhelming, with the right techniques, the stress caused by school can be manageable.

Is School Stress Normal?

Stress is a normal part of everyday life, both in and outside of school. Some stress is good — it motivates us to do our best and meet the challenges ahead. However, negative stress — known scientifically as distress — is usually felt when it feels like we don’t have the means or abilities to face a conflict. This feeling can be overwhelming and hard to work through. 

School stress is normal and experienced by many students. According to a study by NYU, 49% of students experience stress caused by school on a daily basis. 

Below are some of the most common stressors in school:

  • Navigating social lives
  • Adjusting to routine changes and transitions
  • Pressure to be successful
  • Finding or identifying support systems
  • Time management

What Is the Most Stressful Year of School?

While school can cause stress across all years, high school is considered by some to be a uniquely stressful period. This is because it is a time of great developmental and social change which, on top of the regular demands of school, can be quite difficult to navigate. Some stress factors that are especially common among high school students are:

  • Financial difficulties
  • Relocating or changing schools
  • Living in an unsafe neighborhood
  • Low self-esteem
  • Physical changes
  • Change in family structure (divorce or death)
  • Perfectionism or unreasonably high expectations
  • Chronic illness
  • Anxiety about future plans
  • Difficulty with social relationships

Does School Cause Stress and Anxiety?

School can cause a lot of stress and anxiety as it comes with a host of possible threats. Although many of these are not guaranteed or even likely, just the thought of them can be anxiety-inducing. Commonly anticipated threats include those that threaten our physical and mental or emotional health:

  • Physical threats: abuse/mistreatment, shooting/death, and neglect.
  • Emotional threats: bullying/teasing, condescending statements, and being retained/held back.

School also presents a variety of demands that can feel difficult to meet. Some possible stress-causing demands are:

  • Preparing for quizzes and upcoming tests
  • Forming relationships
  • Adhering to schedules
  • Complying to the requests of teachers 
  • Completing homework assignments
  • Getting good grades

Is School a Main Cause of Depression?

School could be a contributing factor to depression. A recent study found that an inability to handle stress is linked to depression — so, a stressful environment such as school could lead to depression in this way. 

In addition, social connections are often made at school and while many of these relationships are positive, they can also be the source of discomfort and strife. Bullying, rejection, and social isolation are often related to depression. One study found that low self-esteem, a perceived lack of social support, and inefficient problem-solving skills were prevalent risk factors among high school students.

Additionally, young people feeling pressure to perform well in school can lead to decreased self-esteem, another gateway to depression. All of that said, it’s important to remember that depression can be caused by a variety of contributing factors, such as genetics, life circumstances, substance use, and changes to the brain.  

Is School Bad for Your Mental Health?

School can be bad for your mental health. At its most basic level, school is harmless; it is a place where people can acquire skills, knowledge, and values. However, certain conditions in school can contribute to poor mental health. 

Some of the negative impacts school can have on your mental health include:

  • Vulnerability to stress
  • Bullying, abuse, or intimidation
  • Integration of communities of people with various beliefs and values, coupled with poor emotional regulation skills
  • Being asked to participate in things that go against personal values and beliefs

There is also a variety of aspects of school that are good for your mental health. School can be beneficial to your mental health in the way that it: 

  • Provides credible knowledge in an organized, easy-to-learn fashion
  • Prioritizes safety by implementing screening processes and background checks
  • Employs skilled instructors that guide you through materials
  • Emphasizes diversity and inclusion
  • Develop skills like problem-solving, social skills, time management, conflict resolution, assertiveness

If you feel that the negative impacts of school are outweighing the positive, it’s important to seek help or try strategies to mitigate them. 

What to Do If School is Too Stressful? How to Deal With School Stress and Anxiety?

There are a variety of ways to cope when you feel stressed because of school. Some responses include: 

  • Identifying resources. Reach out to your parents, teachers, friends, or a counselor for ongoing support. And if you’re ever in a crisis and need immediate help, please call or text the 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline.
  • Using coping skills. There are many ways to adjust to deal with stress. Self-talk, self-soothing touches, and speaking to a trusted loved one are just a few strategies for coping.
  • Reducing demands. Ask for extensions on stressful assignments, or try to distinguish the tasks you need to complete from those that are less important.
  • Practicing self-care. Eat regular and balanced meals, engage in physical activity, and get an appropriate amount of sleep to reduce stress symptoms.
  • Trying relaxation techniques. Guided imagery, progressive muscle relaxation, and diaphragmatic breathing can help moderate feelings of stress.
  • Focusing on what is within your control. Let go of the things you have no power over, and try to focus on making changes where you can.

While some stress at school is normal, it doesn’t have to feel uncontrollable. With the right coping mechanisms, academic stress can become manageable and could even help you succeed in the classroom. If you are struggling to manage your stress alone, please consider reaching out to a mental health professional. They can not only offer a listening ear but also equip you with strategies to handle stressful situations.  

Table of contents

Is School Stress Normal?

What Is the Most Stressful Year of School?

Does School Cause Stress and Anxiety?

Is School a Main Cause of Depression?

Is School Bad for Your Mental Health?

What to Do If School is Too Stressful? How to Deal With School Stress and Anxiety?

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Laura Harris, LCMHC

Laura Harris is a Licensed Clinical Mental Health Counselor (LCMHC). She specializes in anger, anxiety, depression, stress management, coping strategies development, and problem-solving skills.

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Theresa Welsh is a Licensed Professional Counselor (LPC) with a passion for providing the utmost quality of services to individuals and couples struggling with relationship issues, depression, anxiety, abuse, ADHD, stress, family conflict, life transitions, grief, and more.

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  • Communications, N. W. (2015, August 11). NYU study examines top high school students’ stress and coping mechanisms. NYU. https://www.nyu.edu/about/news-publications/news/2015/august/nyu-study-examines-top-high-school-students-stress-and-coping-mechanisms.html

  • MediLexicon International. (n.d.). Stress response in key brain region may explain depression. Medical News Today. https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/inability-of-a-brain-region-to-adapt-to-stress-may-lead-to-depression

  • Eskin, M. (2008). [prevalence of and factors related to depression in high school students]. Turkish Journal of Psychiatry. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/19110980200 

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The information on this page is not intended to replace assistance, diagnosis, or treatment from a clinical or medical professional. Readers are urged to seek professional help if they are struggling with a mental health condition or another health concern.

If you’re in a crisis, do not use this site. Please call the Suicide & Crisis Lifeline at 988 or use these resources to get immediate help.

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