From the Archives, Dec. 10, 1982: ‘High achievers may suffer from stress’

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Elizabeth Dugdale / Sun Star

Straight “A” students are more likely to seek out university psychologists for help in coping with school-related stress than are students who are doing very poorly or are in danger of flunking out.

According to Ken Green, a clinical psychologist at the University Center for Health and Counseling, students who are high achievers or perfectionist tend to shut out other important aspects of their lives in favor of their studies. They tend not to form real relationships or intimate relationships and deny themselves time for socializing and relaxation, all of which can lead to unhappiness or depression.

Students who are doing very poorly at the university are usually in trouble because of some kind of skill deficit, Green said. If they can’t write well, take notes or have trouble in some specific area, there are concrete things they can do to correct that. Green suspects that this type of student is more likely to approach a teacher or a friend or a tutor to address such problems, and they tend to realize they are in trouble early in the semester.

Over-achievers very often come to the counseling center not knowing what is making them so unhappy, Green said. They don’t get the concrete feedback that students who have a skills deficit do such as exam grades and progress reports.

Nothing in high achievers’ background really prepares them to be unhappy when they are doing well. Green said, parental affection has been tied to the person’s accomplishments in school. But Green pointed out that it is important that such people learn to modify their expectations for themselves and accept that other things in life are as important as education. This “tunnel vision” that such students often have is not likely to cure itself once a degree is obtained. It is likely to continue into the workplace, and the same sort of unhappiness will persist in that person’s life; one may marry and never know one’s spouse or children, never have close friends, and so on.

Where Green may advise the students with skills deficits to accept that they may fail this semester, or only get by with C’s, and that there is always next semester, the over-achiever’s difficulties are more complicated. The over-achiever may even have a greater fear of failure going into final exams with straight “A’s” than the person who is flunking has because he or she feels the consequences are so much greater.

Failure to over-achievers, Green said, is taken as a personal affirmation of himself, hence their anxiety levels may be extremely high even when there is no chance at all they they will fail a course.

Green tries to help such students confront their fear of failure which is tied in with a fear of relaxing. Once a person confronts that fear, she should be able to find some balance in her life, of “moderation in all things,” Green said.

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