Stress, College Life, and Self-Worth

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

I've written before about balancing academics and creativity. Now that we are coming upon the end of finals and yet another dramatic spike in personal free time (a.k.a. winter break), I feel that it must be brought up once more, but in a slightly different light. This time I want to address stress.

Though my college experience is not universal, I have found that us high-achieving folk that get to college and have all the privileges bestowed upon us of being in the academic environment cannot let go of stress. Eustress (the good kind of that actors sometimes call "exquisite pressure") is acceptable and often healthy in terms of getting over procrastination. But this is not the kind we're faced with. Deeper issues with stress arrive when it goes beyond that exquisite pressure and reaches the breaking point.

We talk about this a lot in American culture: the pressure to achieve in a capitalist society, the pressure to do well in every aspect of your life, and the pressure to be better than someone else are all ingrained from an early age. It excites a type of perfectionism in all of us - drive is valuable, thus drive is the only thing I need. Or at least it seems that way. But drive can quickly melt into stress and, when it is coming from all sides, it can quickly crush you.

Back to school. I think college students, both from inside the academy and outside, are viewed as incredibly lucky. And this is definitely true. But many a time I have seen that the perceived luck and privilege of college students translate to the idea that we only have academic needs. No emotional needs, no familial responsibilities. No complications. And so we see each other (and our administrators see us) with reference to how our academics are going; if there's something wrong in that regard, then we can access support. But what if it's not? What if we are experiencing emotional trauma or financial hardship or even just a debilitating sense of performance anxiety? What then?

It returns us to the idea of perfectionism. Grades are used as a ballast to measure whether we are doing well in all aspects of our lives. We ignore the other stuff so long as we can hide behind that all-too-valuable A. Never mind the relationships, the social life, and all that jazz. Don't even get me started on the stress Olympics that is a badge of honor in our school.

Exquisite pressure from the academy, from our parents, and (perhaps most importantly) from other students is a positive aspect of our academic environment when it pushes us to do our best. But I think that often this pressure in the academic realm bleeds over into our social lives; if we don't have it all together on all those different levels, it just multiplies how much stress we're experiencing as individuals in a community of high-achievers. Soon we are measuring our self-worth and our experience of college based solely on grades and our ability to appear healthy when really it's just a repression of our problems.

I could go into the social implications of this model - the fact that it relates to how we view people in the United States as part of a labor-output model and how we envision academia as a stewpot for greater career achievement rather than personal growth - but I think that this problem has to be addressed first at a micro-level. We need to make sure that we take care of ourselves as much as possible and work to recognize (not cover up) the tough emotions and struggles that we all go through. We are whole people. We are not machines and, while we may be young, we have passed through a lot of challenges already at this point in our lives.

I want you to take it upon yourself to check in during your most stressful times and identify the different types of pressures you are getting. Don't just focus on the hours spent studying or the procrastination factors. Take a look at the different levels of personal and emotional stress you are experiencing right alongside it and ask yourself: what do I really need to make this experience worthwhile? What do I need to work on to feel better and manage my stress in a healthy way? And, if it gets to be overwhelming, how can I seek constructive support?

I plan to do a series on stress and the academy in the coming months, so let me know if you have any topics that you'd like me to address.