Over break, I spent a lot of time with my parents, as one does when they return home and are suddenly no longer surrounded by people. We were discussing futures over enchiladas and the topic drifted towards the recent changes I had made to try to become less stressed on a daily basis. My mother then asked me what exactly was making me so stressed. “Everything,” I replied, and this was the truth – one that too many college students know all too well. The stress of an unknown future, a future that seemed far too hinged upon classes that weren’t always designed for our success. The most alarming fact is how this stress has been normalized.
It is undeniable that stress does not have positive effects on the human body. Numerous studies have been done on how stress not only causes detrimental health effects but can sometimes change the internal workings of the body. A study by Agnese Mariotti has found that increased stress makes us more susceptible to disease and alters hormone levels such as cortisol. One cannot remedy these symptoms in an instant as they are problems that become chronic due to repeated stress. Moreover, these effects are felt by an alarmingly large portion of the population with 77% of adults experiencing physical symptoms and 73% experiencing psychological stress. The effects of stress, specifically chronic stress, are numerous and pervasive within our society. As such, it is of little surprise that these symptoms have been framed as normal. Of course college students are stressed, college matters. Of course young adults are stressed, they need to work hard to retire. But this cannot be accepted as the norm.
Along with the normalization of stress and its symptoms, many of the poor habits individuals develop in response to chronic stress have been normalized. Nearly 36% of Americans report skipping meals due to stress. Personally, nearly everyone around me has pulled an all-nighter to finish their assignments at least once. Sleep deprivation is an excellent example of how many negative aspects of stress have become a fact of life. I have already written an article about the normalization of exhaustion, but this normalization affects individuals so greatly that it is worth repeating. Waking up feeling exhausted is not normal. Unfortunately, the blame does not only rest on the institutions that assign our worth in the form of GPAs. It is also on us as students to prioritize ourselves. In 20 years, our GPA will no longer matter, but the effects of constant sleep deprivation and a lack of healthy food will follow us. The effects of chronic stress are exactly that – chronic – and we can no longer prioritize transient tasks over our long-term health.
The internet is littered with advice on how to reduce stress, from listening to music to eating healthier, and many of them work. However, it is impossible to flip a switch and have college students suddenly stop caring exorbitantly about school. But we can start with small changes. Personally, I have started with getting more sleep. I focus on trying to be as productive as possible, but when the clock hits midnight I choose to sleep rather than continue working. This has helped me immensely. Yes, I might have received a better grade on my biochemistry quiz if I had stayed up late, but I also might not have. I could have woken up and felt depleted and done even poorer. What mattered most was after a year, that habit of getting enough sleep would be much more beneficial to me than an extra 5% on a single quiz. This change in mindset was not easy to make, especially when I have championed academic performance as my defining quality for so long. But it is a change that we must make, for our own health and betterment, it’s worth it.