When Stress Culture Crosses the Line

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Trigger warning: brief mention of suicide.

If you asked any Barnard or Columbia student about their least favorite aspects of life on campus, most of them would probably mention the inescapable stress culture created by our drive for academic success. If you overheard conversations of passersby in the dining halls or in the dorms, you’d hear all kinds of stories about pulling all-nighters and spending entire days in Butler. It’s undeniable that Barnard and Columbia students work hard. But how hard is too hard?

Columbia is notorious for its lack of assistance in the areas of stress relief and mental health assistance, which has had fatal consequences for students in the past. While we demand better from our administration, it’s important in the meantime (and always) to be vigilant of both our own and of others’ unhealthy habits, especially those pertaining to academic success. If you notice a friend, classmate, or roommate sacrificing certain aspects of their health for academic success, you should know that this is not normal, and it should be swiftly addressed.

It can be easy to get swept up in the conversation, to want to be inspired and motivated by your peers to do the same thing and choose work over sleep. But we need to be mindful of our own needs, in terms of physical, mental and emotional health.

 

Sleep

In an ideal world, we’d all get 8 hours of sleep a night. Of course, that’s not always possible with the workloads we’re given and all of the extracurricular activities we participate in. I highly doubt that it’s impossible to avoid pulling all-nighters all the time. Sleep should be one of our top priorities, even though it admittedly can feel like wasting time. But come on, do you really think that the overly caffeinated, sleep-deprived version of you is going to write a better paper at 4 a.m. than the well-rested, alert version of you?

 

Breaks between studying

Taking small breaks in between your studying sounds counterproductive, but it can actually help your brain be more alert and remember information better. It makes sense if you think about it; if you slog through hours of studying without letting your mind rest, you’re more likely to start thinking about distractions and your motivation will plummet. On the other hand, if you take small breaks every now and then, you’re giving your mind a bit of time to reset and when you go back to work, it’ll be like you’re starting for the first time each time: ready to crack down and get to it.

 

Talking to others

So many of us are guilty of one-upping each other. When we hear that someone has to write a paper by the end of the week, we become desperate to jump in, to say, “I totally know how you feel. I have two papers, a presentation, and a job interview this week.” Being stressed becomes almost a sport to us.

Why do we do this, though? Why does having more work and less time to get it done equate to academic superiority? We need to let go of this toxic mindset. Of course, that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t talk to our friends and family if we’re feeling overwhelmed - we absolutely should, instead of bottling it up. But that doesn’t mean we need to turn it into a competition.

 

The bottom line

Don’t normalize stress culture. It’s ugly, unhealthy, and it does no favors for anybody. The more we remain aware of this as a student community, and the more we resist giving in to those habits, the better off we’ll be in the future.

About The Author

Erica is studying English and creative writing at Barnard, and hopes to write a few novels of her own someday. She's still figuring out life in New York City, but so far she's just glad that the pizza is better here than in her home of Orange County, CA.