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Combatting stress culture

Move-in day is stressful–special, yes, but mostly stressful. We dress it up with mascots and activities and traditions, but really it’s a mess of boxes and last-minute Target trips and realizing that you don’t know anyone here. Of all my chaotic memories, though, one stands out in particular. 

It’s nearing the end of my first day of college. I’m sitting in the grass, socializing with my New Student Week group, and the new students are taking turns asking the peer leaders questions. I pipe up and ask about free time at Carleton, essentially how much, and what people do with it. The peer leaders look at me. Pause. Open their mouths. And – I kid you not – laugh. 

Naturally, it was a bit disconcerting to be a fresh-faced freshman and hear that woosh was the sound of my free time going out the window. To be clear, I wasn’t a stranger to hard work, but that didn’t mean that I wanted to work constantly–or feel pressured to do so–either. Accordingly, in an effort to maintain my sanity, I set a few ground rules for myself early in my college career: 

1. No all-nighters. 

2. No panicking over assignments and grades. 

3. No guilt over downtime free of work-think. 

Somehow, I’m still here and my GPA hasn’t shattered into smithereens, each missed hundredth of a point an angel tear fallen from the heavens. 

Stress culture is toxic, and it’s sneaky. While Carleton students tend to be collaborative, it doesn’t take a cutthroat environment to do the damage. It’s in the little things–engaging in conversations with competitive undertones over how stressed you are. Lamenting your workload to the point that your dining companions feel anxious on your behalf. Refusing to take a break because there just isn’t the time! Even writing this paragraph is giving me palpitations. 

I don’t mean to suggest that I have never contributed to stress culture. I certainly have, though I don’t like how it makes me feel: rather than acting as a form of catharsis, it has the opposite effect. To be clear, the goal is not to discourage open and honest communication with friends about stress or school. Rather, it is important to be cognizant of intentions and byproducts when discussing these things. Am I alleviating stress or perpetuating it? 

Furthermore, I think it is really helpful to set personal ground rules like those I listed above. These will be different for every student, as each of us has varying study habits, preferences and tolerance levels. Critically, it is beneficial to first recognize the aspects of our individual routines that are crucial to maintaining good physical and mental health, then make the effort to prioritize them.

This allows us to decrease our personal stress levels and prevent them from affecting those around us. 

Beyond simply identifying these guidelines, however, it is important to uphold them. College presents a unique challenge in the sense that we learn, work and live in the same place. This can make it really difficult to compartmentalize and create healthy boundaries between these parts of our lives. That said, it is incredibly important to do so! This is especially true now, when there are many stressors (the pandemic, for one) exacerbating those prevalent in daily college life. 

Admittedly, college academics are a whole new level of commitment and, as such, inevitably require sacrifice. I once had an extremely demanding group project that ate up every extra minute for a week. There were a few things that I had to give up–meals were wolfed down in ten minutes (my apologies to anyone who witnessed this in the LDC), downtime was nonexistent, and there was probably a little more anxiety than necessary. Even then, however, I refused to budge on my resistance to pulling an all-nighter. I worked all afternoon and evening so that I could get into my warm bed at night and sleep. 

Perhaps the most productive way to combat stress culture, then, is to learn to be a strong self-advocate. I set the boundaries that I do because they promote behaviors that allow me to be in control of my work and the toll that I let it take on my body. This is something on which no one should ever compromise. Whether it comes to competitive conversations, high-pressure group projects  or generally any manifestation of stress culture, we must learn to recognize our limits and respect them. Most importantly, however, we need to destigmatize boundaries by acknowledging them as signs of strength rather than admissions of failure.

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