The Experience of Academic Anxiety from an Over-Achiever


HSC can be a challenging period. With deadlines looming, essays impatiently waiting to be written, the clock ticking, it feels that an agonisingly heavy weight sits on your shoulders. You rest your head on your pillow, and even then, thoughts race around your mind, taunting you with unwanted messages, plunging you deeper into a chasm. As a result, many of us might, understandably, feel on-edge, suspended tenuously in a state of perpetual anxiety as we ponder and ruminate, thinking to ourselves that we won't be able to perform, that we will disappoint others, and be a failure to ourselves.

These feelings of apprehension, tension and sometimes fear are, however, very normal and evolutionarily-hardwired reactions to situations we perceive to be threatening, of importance, or having high-stakes, a healthy affective reaction that humans need - believe it or not. Imagine if you didn't feel any academic stress - you wouldn't engage in a single thought about your exams and assignments and might not even hand them in since the repercussions of this do not bother you at all. To further hyperbolise this idea, imagine the dangerous predicaments we might find ourselves stuck in if we were completely numb to fear - we wouldn't express much of a reaction witnessing a lion heading towards us, salivating and hungry.

Indeed, these feelings of unease actually exist to protect us - to make sure that we engage in actions and behaviours that will be beneficial, functional or healthy. For instance, we might feel anxious about an upcoming Maths test and decide to get off TikTok to start preparing our notes or begin revising, or feel scared at the sight of a lion and start running.

Nonetheless, anxiety is a normal thing, but may intensify during the HSC as there will naturally be more things you'll need to attend to and keep tabs on.

For others however, this anxiety can become extremely debilitating, persistent and distressing, even causing impairment and dysfunctionality. These negative emotions might even make the individual feel lonely or even isolated from their peers as they are simply focusing on their ongoing inner worry of failing or disappointing others and themselves.

This form of anxiety is undeniably complex and can be related to a whole heap of variables such as family expectations, teachers, school culture, performance fears, self-evaluation and personal factors such as self-efficacy, personal goals and desires. The heightened stress induced by the demanding-nature of the HSC can therefore make us susceptible to a distressing form of anxiety related to academia, the future (e.g. our careers and post high-school endeavours), family and friends.

Although anxiety can make us feel alone, this, however, is not the case.


From personal experience, as an over-achiever, I know that anxiety can be both a positive or negative thing. In addition to its protective mechanisms and its ability to initiate much-needed action as previously mentioned, overly intense anxiety can quickly become maladaptive (speaking from experience) and be more detrimental to performance rather than conducive to productivity. Although I used to believe that my anxiety protected me from me from failure, mis-assuming that by living in constant fear I would be able to better defend myself and prepare myself for action if consequences were to arise, I've since realised that it can be highly dysfunctional when taken to extreme lengths and counter-intuitively cause malfunctions in cognitions, affect and behaviour. As a result, I have since taken active steps to be more aware of my own anxious thoughts to better regulate these anxious feelings. For many, I know that anxiety can quickly spiral out of control and can even become debilitating to the point it induces panic-like symptoms or in severe cases, derealisation. However, being conscious of one's own emotions and trying our best to keep in mind that anxiety is, at its most basic level, just a feeling that will eventually pass, just with any emotion like happiness or sadness - is important.


Although anxiety is adaptive in many ways, it is also worthy to note that such adaptiveness is really only conferred when the cost and probability of the threat occurring is measured in an accurate way such that it warrants the subsequent anxiety response. For example, it wouldn't really be worthy to engage in an overly anxious response about the thought of lightning striking your house if it's a sunny day with blue skies (in such a case, the anxiety is not warranted due to a miscalculation of the perceived likelihood of threat). What I have since realised upon leaving high school and entering university, is that academic anxiety flourishes largely on the flawed calculus used to determine the cost or severity of the consequence if one were to perform below standard, disappoint others or even oneself.

Although many people might throw out inaccurate statements like: "the HSC determines your future. It is the only thing that matters", or "my exam mark defines who I am", these are rather ludicrous remarks that should be taken with a grain of salt. It is statements like these which might cause individuals to develop beliefs about how self-value is hinged solely on academic performance - creating a sort of dichotomous thinking style that reduces the world into binary x-y variables, something that I definitely suffered from, growing up. Realising that the actual cost of failing a test or performing to a degree less than expected will not doom your life is important in keeping your anxiety under your control - rather than the other way around. It also demonstrates the importance of having healthy metacognitions that allow you to evaluate the accuracy of your thinking patterns and whether it is useful or not to engage in them.


Of course, the HSC is a demanding time. Whilst it might test one very confined aspect of your intelligence, beyond this, I believe it also is a measure for one's resilience.

I've come to appreciate anxiety for many reasons - I know that it exists to protect me, to instigate action and to ensure that I don't do anything silly. But I also know that persistent, unchanging and stubborn forms of anxiety that induce panic, hysteria or even paranoia can arise from inaccurate judgements about the world. But knowing that we are all in control of this is important.

It is vital to ensure that during exam or assessment period, we regulate our emotions and take control of ourselves - physically, emotionally and intellectually - to maximise our performance. Self-management and self-regulation are key.

It is also so very important that we reach out to others, friends and peers, and remind them that everyone is on the same boat, riding the same wave, because some may feel otherwise, making the journey even more difficult.

Understanding anxiety, its mechanisms, the factors which induce it and maintain it, is a good first step to be of helping hands to others who might be experiencing its darkest form.

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