I love the Queen/David Bowie song "Under Pressure" ("dum dum dum diddle dum dum, dum dum dum diddle dum dum" you know the song). There is something about Bowie's strained voice that feels like he is right on the edge of breaking point. That "tears behind the eyes" feeling when stress builds and builds and there is just too much pressure.
Dealing with stress is something that is difficult to learn by yourself and we don't teach it in schools. But perhaps we should, because it is often in schools that young people get their first taste of high stress and that build up of pressure that can overwhelm you. This is particularly the case for those who are doing really well. They generate internal pressure on themselves, they carry the heavy burden of ambitious parents expectations and they feel the eyes of the school and their hard pressed, results hungry teachers on them.
How many A*s will they get? What University will they get in to? Even on the sports side, will they get signed for that all important netball team/rugby club/olympic squad? Why are they only Grade 8 piano? How big is their scholarship? And all they hear from friends, family, teachers is "ooohh you are soooo lucky. I wish I was you. It must be so easy. You've got no problems."
So they smile with glistening eyes, but internally they fret. Their tummy in knots when exam time comes because they might get an awful A instead of an excellent A*. Or only get into a top Russell Group University, one of the best in the world as it happens, instead of getting that all important Oxbridge offer and listen to aunts and uncles say "well done for getting a place at University" but what they hear is "Hah, you didn't get Oxbridge, you failure, you might as well give up now". They say "So and so is much cleverer than me, He/she will do so well" but their friends hear it as false modesty. What they are really saying is "Please give me a break and let me get on with stuff. I'll do the best I can, but please take your expectations off me and let me breath!"
So how do you deal with stress like this? I don't know to be honest otherwise I would have written a self help book, sold millions of copies and be living on my very own private island (probably worrying that it was not as big as the island next door, or that it might sink), but with 30 years of hindsight there are a few things that occur to me.
Think about medium term goals, not about short term tactics. So, don't get hung up on the very next step in front of you, whether that is going to this sixth form or that University. These are important, yes, but they are tactical steps. You should focus on the medium term goal. Create a picture in your mind of you in 5 or 6 year time. Where are you? What are you doing? Are you excited about being there? Are you proud of being there? Then work back from there and shape the five or ten different paths you could have taken to get there. They are all equally valid. You might have a preferred route (or someone might have a prefered route mapped out for you) but that is just one of many. Don't get hung up about it. By all means go for it flat out with everything you've got but if it doesn't come off, don't sweat it. You have lots more routes to get to your medium term goal. Keep the goal in mind, adjust the tactical steps as you go.
Remember you will have at least three careers, perhaps more in your lifetime. So you are thinking "do I want to be a Doctor or a Writer? I really love them both. I can't decide. It's so stressful". I bring glad tidings - The answer is that you will be both. And two more things as well. You don't need to make an either/or decision. You just need to decide which order you are going to enjoy your life in. There is no decision that you can possibly make now that defines your life forever more, so relax, enjoy, follow what feels right and when it stops feeling right do something else instead.
Learn how to fail. Your problem is that you've never really failed at anything, so you don't know how to. You always get As, the worst you get is a B. You always get into places you apply for. When was the last time you really went for something and landed flat on your face? So, you haven't learnt how to fail. You are scared of failure. How does it feel? How do people look at you? How will you look at yourself? But life is going to throw failure after failure at you and it all depends on how you bounce back. Get busy failing now while it's safe to do so, while you've got the support around you. It will help you in the future. Set yourself some real stretch goals and go for them. Gosh, you failed! Who cares? Has the world stopped spinning? Does your mother still love you? See it's not scary at all. Don't be afraid of failure - I do it all the time. It's no big deal. I am very bounce-back-able.
Better out than in. Never ever, ever, ever, ever (...) ever bottle up your stress and do that stupid stiff upper lip thing. Find a friend. Cry. Shout. Scream. Write. Blog. Sing sad songs. Paint. Get it out. Express it. You must not bottle it up. Did I say ever, ever enough? Have you got the message? Good.
What's the big idea? Somewhere in you is the Big Idea. You don't tell people because it sounds like you are boasting or just dreaming. But you are going to save the lives of 10,000 children. You are going to be Prime Minister. You are going to cure Aids. It is true. I have seen it. So, when you are stressing yourself out over some trivial issue about University A or University B, or one micro-grade vs another then remember these are tiny issues compared to what you are here on earth to do. You have a Big Idea. It is very big. Every and all paths that you take now will take you towards your big idea. It is impossible to be blown off course by some trivial decision that some small minded person makes today. We call such things "small matters". We dismiss them with the words "huh, these are small matters. I am here to do something bigger than you can know, than you can understand". We deal with these small matters and move on.
Alternatively if none of this works you can try the therapy offered by my son when he was younger. When someone in the house was being a bit stressed, he would follow them around, at a safe distance, chanting in a low voice "stressy stressy moo moo, stressy stressy moo moo". If all else fails, get yourself a small boy to follow you around chanting under his breath and see if that helps.