Intense commitments drag students down


Ji-Sung Lee

Art by Dzung Nguyen
For the multiple repsonbitilites high schoolers find themselves assigned to, these overwhelming tasks can take a toll mentally and physically on any teenager trying to keep up. In the case of sophomore Daniel Schroeder, these responsibilities come in the form of school; with an overload of work he finds in his AP World History class. Staying up late in attempts to complete lengthy chapter notes known as mini journals, Schroeder finds this work to become a constant source of sleep deprivation.
“Every week is like a marathon,” Schroder said. “I barely make it across the finish line come Friday.”
For teenagers taking on rigorous classes and extracurricular activities, responsibilities can get tough to manage.  Psychologist Dr. Tara Vossenkemper, who runs the website, said what most don’t understand is where to draw the line, and when saying no is ultimately the better option.
“There’s a zone. What typically happens is that people find the zone, but when they reach too much, everything falls to pieces,” Dr.Vossenkemper said. “Then those people end up thinking that the straw is the fine line, when the reality is that they were thriving with the right amount, but they just didn’t realize that it was the right amount.”
Similar to Schroeder, sophomore Maddie Murphy knows all too well about how finding the “zone” is no difficult task, especially when Murphy struggles to find a balance of her own responsibilities versus someone else’s.  Often times, she finds herself in a place where she has taken more than she can handle.
“Sometimes I feel like things are my responsibility when they aren’t,” Murphy said.  “I like to be super involved, but sometimes I don’t have time for myself.  I’m really bad at saying no when people ask me to do something so I sometimes take on too much.  Anxiety is definitely something I’ve experienced  a lot this past year and it’s mainly due to being involved in problems that I shouldn’t be involved in or over involving myself in activities.”
According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, anxiety disorders are the most common mental illness in the United States. The disorder affects 40 million adults in the U.S. who are above the age of 18, which is 18 percent of the population. Though Clark is aware of these symptoms and the exhaustion they bring, she knows when over repsonitilbites hit, and how to handle them.
“I feel overwhelmed usually when extracurriculars interfere with my class work,” Clark said. “I can become really stressed but I try to focus on one thing at a time and take breaks.”
What many teens don’t get is the weary state they will face when they reach this wall, the wall of excessive responsibilities they just can’t handle. Realizing the consequences and exhaustion they will feel in the end, however, is almost harder to recognize at the beginning, then keeping up with the responsibility itself.
“When we initially take things on, we feel fine,” Dr. Vossenkemper said. “We feel neither tired nor overwhelmed. However, when we carry that thing without taking a break or thinking about the long-term outcomes, we risk feeling completely overwhelmed and confused about how it happened.”
But for senior Jessica Clark, she must reassure herself that the exhaustion that comes with spreading herself out thin is necessary to find balance with a future in success.  Although Clark sometimes finds herself pushing through in hopes of gaining a beneficial outcome, she must also note that when these responsibilities change her mental and physical abilities, she has crossed the line.
“It can definitely be overwhelming at times, but I know it’s important to have balance and everything will pay off,” Clark said. “If I don’t have time for family and friends and I’m not getting enough sleep, then I have to start saying no. Sometimes I can get really overwhelmed and emotional and then I can’t focus on anything. When this happens I usually talk to my mom and she reminds me to just focus on one little piece at a time and to take breaks from doing school work.”
Like Clark, Schroeder knows when the consequences of stepping over the “zone” become detrimental to a student’s health and mind.  For Schroeder, it comes in the form of having to constantly catch up after a week full of responsibilities.
“I haven’t ever been one to enroll in a lot of clubs, though I’m a full honors and AP student,” Schroeder said. “It’s a lot of work; I’m sometimes up until one or two in the morning trying to get it all done. I wait in eager anticipation for three-day weekends and long breaks because my mind is always running [and] trying to figure out each of my classes. It’s exhausting. By the end of the week I sleep 12-14 hours straight to try and regain all that I had originally lost.”
Despite having to catch up on lost energy, Schroeder believes it’s the teens themselves who don’t know when they are setting themselves up for a breakdown.
“In some cases, I think teens are unaware of the workload they sign themselves up for. With required classes that can range from regular to AP and electives that have varying levels of work, plus the plethora of clubs some kids take,” Schroeder said. “It isn’t hard to overdo it in high school, simply because classes and clubs expect a ton out of you without any regard to how much other work is being assigned.”
Dr. Vossenkemper is all too familiar with mental breakdowns and the exhaustions teenagers get when they can’t handle the responsibilities and don’t know when to draw the line. The National Institute of Mental Health said between the ages of 13 to 18, a lifetime prevalence of an anxiety disorder is at 25.1 percent.  For those teens, this anxiety can become excessive and cause suffering and bring negative effects on a day to day basis.
“If you’re feeling exceptionally irritable, crying easily, having trouble falling asleep, not feeling rested when you wake up, eating poorly, or even having panic attacks, these may all be signs that you’re taking on too much,” Dr. Vossenkemper said.  “[This means] the pressure of your responsibilities are a little bit too heavy for you.”
When defeat comes along with cracking under pressure, Dr. Vossenkemper is aware of  how excessive responsibilities may result in these panic attacks.  Luckily, she knows the tricks to reverse them, too.
“This can be prevented through intention and self-awareness. It is a way to ensure that you’re getting a break,” Dr. Vossenkemper said. “Our physical health is directly related to our mental health. When we feel overly stressed, our immune systems go into overdrive. This results in it being less efficient when we actually get sick because it’s exhausted from working so hard. If you find yourself sick all the time, this can be a sign that you’re overly stressed and have taken on too much.”
For teens already encompassed in a sea of responsibilities with no way out, Dr. Vossenkemper suggests reconsidering priorities, which can help stabilize mental health.  
“I’ve worked with teenagers and instead of dropping anything for their own mental or physical health, they keep plugging along and end up having panic attacks,” Dr. Vossenkemper said. “My first inclination is to tell people to drop the least important thing, or to reorganize the amount of time spent on activities.”
In Murphy’s case, she has her own remedies and fallbacks she knows are bound to work under stressful times when she’s booked with responsibilities.
“I have a few thing I say to myself that usually calm me down,” Murphy said. “If I get really anxious, I like to turn down the lights and listen to music or songs. It’s something I’ve always loved doing.  I like to get around positive people who motivate me to be a better person.”
Though these adjustments and self care can only be hoped to calm and relieve the stress pressures and responsibilities bring, Dr. Vossenkemper knows that symptoms of these excessive responsibilities are sure to come back one way or another.
“These changes aren’t magical pills. They take time and energy, but the time and energy spent on them is like paying yourself,” Dr.  Vossenkemper said. “The result is more energy and more efficiency in what you’re doing, rather than less.”
How do you handle stress? Leave a comment below.