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HeartMind e-News: Teach, Learn, Lead

A monthly publication dedicated to trauma-informed, compassionate school practices that help educators, students, and families move toward a sense of wholeness and well-being


Swimming, Not Sinking, in a Hypercompetitive Environment

Stephanie Noel, CEI Intern

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While competition is generally considered a healthy and normal aspect of growing up, when does it become excessive? Let’s consider “The Yerkes-Dodson Law.” Simply put, there is an apparent state of optimal stress corresponding to optimal performance.

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This law can be applied to an excess of academic competition in students of all ages. A “hypercompetitive” environment, first formally characterized by Karen Horney in 1937, is one in which students will do whatever it takes to win – no matter the path it takes to get there. This environment combined with a lack of coping skills can be a potent contributor to excessive stress and anxiety.

While some students may thrive under these same academic pressures, others may drown. Beyond academia, competitive pressures exist in other realms such as social influence, finances, and creative skills. Hypercompetitive pressures come with detriments like aggression and jealousy (Humphrey & Vaillancourt, 2021). Social bonding and intimacy may also be restrained (Levesque, 2011).

Luckily, proactive schools can incorporate cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), one of the strongest evidence-based psychotherapeutic techniques, into their curriculum to arm students with life-long tools to manage stress that stems from a competitive environment (Hoffman et al., 2010).

What is CBT?

CBT is a form of psychotherapy developed in the early 1960s by it’s widely celebrated father, psychiatrist Aaron T. Beck. The revolutionary treatment has since been found to be effective in more than 2000 clinical trials for the gamut of mental health conditions.

The cornerstone of CBT lies in three main principles as outlined by the APA:

  1. Psychological problems are based, in part, on faulty or unhelpful ways of thinking.
  2. Psychological problems are based, in part, on learned patterns of unhelpful behavior.
  3. People suffering from psychological problems can learn better ways of coping with them, thereby relieving their symptoms and becoming more effective in their lives.

While CBT is conventionally practiced between client and therapist, schools can increase accessibility by integrating the practice into their curriculum. Numerous paradigms exist to implement CBT into educational settings.

How Schools Can Implement CBT

PACES, Prevent Anxiety in Children through Education in Schools, performed in 2012 by Stallard et al., featured nine weekly 60 minute sessions with objectives and workbooks based on the principles of CBT. After 12 months of intervention, there were significant reductions in RCADS, the Revised Child Anxiety and Depression Scale, score in children 9-10 years old.

COPE, another intervention based on CBT, has been implemented in K-12 classrooms since 2007 and continues to yield positive outcomes. Delivering COPE has further provided reduction in healthcare costs saving roughly $14,262 for every mental health hospitalization of adolescents that is prevented through the program (Melynk, 2020).

To further increase accessibility to CBT, schools may consider online formats. A 2016 meta-analysis by Vigerland et al. found a “once a week” format of internet CBT programs in adolescents generally yields positive outcomes and is a feasible alternative to in-person classes.

A Healthier and Happier Student

There are numerous CBT classes available and still in the works for schools to incorporate into their curriculum. Moving into the future, administrators, teachers, and families can work together to weave the most optimal and effective option for their students.


American Psychological Association. (2017, July). What is cognitive behavioral therapy? American Psychological Association.

Beck, J. S., & Fleming, S. (2021). A brief history of Aaron T. Beck, MD, and cognitive behavior therapy. Clinical Psychology in Europe, 3(2).

Brown, B. B., & Prinstein, M. J. (2011). Encyclopedia of adolescence. Academic Press.

Hofmann, S. G., Sawyer, A. T., & Fang, A. (2010). The empirical status of the “new wave” of cognitive behavioral therapy. Psychiatric Clinics of North America, 33(3), 701–710.

Humphrey, T., & Vaillancourt, T. (2021). Longitudinal relations between hypercompetitiveness, jealousy, and aggression across adolescence. Merrill-Palmer Quarterly, 67(3), 237.

Melnyk, B. M. (2020). Reducing healthcare costs for mental health hospitalizations with the evidence-based COPE program for child and adolescent depression and anxiety: A cost analysis. Journal of Pediatric Health Care, 34(2), 117–121.

Park, W., & Herman, M. (2021). Win at any cost: Examining personality correlates of achievement in adolescent athletes. Journal of Student Research, 10(3).

Stallard, P., Skryabina, E., Taylor, G., Phillips, R., Daniels, H., Anderson, R., & Simpson, N. (2014). Classroom-based cognitive behaviour therapy (friends): A cluster randomised controlled trial to prevent anxiety in children through education in schools (paces). The Lancet Psychiatry, 1(3), 185–192.

Vigerland, S., Lenhard, F., Bonnert, M., Lalouni, M., Hedman, E., Ahlen, J., Olén, O., Serlachius, E., & Ljótsson, B. (2016). Internet-delivered cognitive behavior therapy for children and adolescents: A systematic review and meta-analysis. Clinical Psychology Review, 50, 1–10.