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The 4 Building Blocks of Academic Anxiety

Overwhelm and unhealthy levels of school stress don’t come from nowhere.

Key points

  • Academic anxiety is when someone experiences the symptoms of anxiety as a result of schoolwork or stress related to schoolwork.
  • While some anxiety may be expected, some teens experience disproportionate anxiety that interferes with their well-being and functioning.
  • Parents can watch out for the four components of academic anxiety: worry, emotionality, task-generated interference, and study skills deficits.

Buzzwords like academic anxiety get tossed around a lot. (To be fair, I do some of the tossing.) As a result of all of this tossing, its definition can be unclear.

Many parents are concerned about academic pressure on adolescents, and they report that their teen seems stressed. Yet many ask, “How do you know if it’s too much stress?" To determine this, let’s define academic anxiety. In this post, I’m going to break down the following:

  1. What is academic anxiety?
  2. Why is academic anxiety such an issue?
  3. When should parents be concerned about academic anxiety?

What Is Academic Anxiety?

Simply put, academic anxiety is when someone (namely, your teen) experiences the symptoms of anxiety as a result of schoolwork or stress related to schoolwork. This anxiety negatively impacts or impedes their overall functioning.

A 2015 Cornell study identified four components of academic anxiety:

  1. Worry. Thoughts that prevent [the student] from focusing on and successfully completing academic work (aka negative self-talk).
  2. Emotionality. Biological symptoms of anxiety. For example, fast heartbeat, sweaty palms, muscle tension, etc.
  3. Task-generated interference. Behaviors related to the task at hand, but which are unproductive and prevent successful performance, like constantly checking the clock during an exam, over-checking or under-checking work, and procrastination.
  4. Study skills deficits.Problems with [the student’s] current study methods which create anxiety, like last-minute cramming resulting in not knowing answers to test questions, or working in an environment that is not conducive to their individual learning style.

Academic anxiety is not a character flaw but a physiological response to perceived internal or external pressures. This means that it can be unconscious or conscious.

Why Is Academic Anxiety Such an Issue?

While the above may seem pretty straightforward, it’s not always as easy to spot or solve as we might hope. So why is it such an issue, and why now? Some measure of academic anxiety has always existed, right? Isn’t this just a normal part of being in school?

Well, yes and no. To be clear, some anxiety is healthy and creates just the right amount of tension and challenge to promote growth.

When anyone is exposed to new experiences or is learning new information, they may feel some elements of stress and anxiety. And healthy anxiety offers a delicate balance of tension and challenge that can promote positive growth changes.

Adolescents are practically defined by their growth and changes, internally and externally, so we’d expect them to experience a range of anxiety and stress.

However, as we all know, some teens may experience disproportionate stress and anxiety—the kind that interferes with their well-being and day-to-day functioning. This is what we’re looking out for.

If you check out that Cornell Study I cited above, you’ll see that the proper (necessary) amount of stress and anxiety to promote productivity and growth exists on a bell curve.

In an effort to promote higher and higher performance in school, we’ve collectively added more and more pressure to our students.

In 2016, 41 percent of incoming college freshmen said they felt “overwhelmed by what they were expected to do,” as opposed to 28 percent in 2000 and 18 percent in 1985. But we’ve long since passed the point of optimum performance in the bell curve. Every year, more and more teens are reporting feelings of overwhelm and anxiety, with an estimated 32 percent of teens experiencing an anxiety disorder and an estimated 8 percent of teens experiencing an anxiety disorder that causes a severe impairment.

Currently, there’s a level of academic pressure being placed on our students that is causing real harm. That’s because this generation of teens is literally expected to do or perform more.

So when we’re talking about academic anxiety, we’re not talking about the healthy and natural levels of anxiety that should exist in schools. Instead, we’re talking about a level of anxiety that’s not only affecting our students’ academic performance but also their overall well-being.

When Should Parents Be Concerned About Academic Anxiety?

OK, this is the kicker. If some academic anxiety is valuable but too much is detrimental, how are parents supposed to know when they should be concerned?

Unfortunately, there’s not a simple answer to this question. Each student copes with anxiety differently, and every student’s threshold is different.

As a parent, you can start with keeping an eye out for the four components of academic anxiety as outlined by Cornell: worry, emotionality, task-generated interference, and study skills deficits.

To find a therapist, please visit the Psychology Today Therapy Directory.


Cornell University, Understanding Academic Anxiety (2015)

Cooperative Institutional Research Program, The American Freshman: Fifty-Year Trends 1966–2015 (2016)

More from Dana Dorfman MSW, Ph.D.
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