Stop Letting Stress Ruin Your Health, I Beg of You

College. What a time. I thought I was well acquainted with stress when I was in high school. The summer before my sophomore year, my family and I took a trip to Dublin, Ireland. It was beautiful, I had an amazing time, I wasn’t catcalled once--but the trip cut into the first two days of school, days that were meant for orientation and briefly going through the classes in our schedules (aka nothing incredibly vital or serious). Little old me, however, started to panic at the thought that missing two days of school--two days--would put me too far behind, so I started to stress about the stress I was going to have about school. Amazing. And do you know what happened? I lost sleep, my skin started breaking out in pink patches of pityriasis rosea, and I started to bald. You read that right; some of my hair started to fall out. Which (and I bet you can guess where this is going) I started to stress about. My dad so kindly put it as: “Anna, you’re not very stress-resilient, and I think we need to work on that.” (Side note: we never worked on that.)


That experience was rattling enough to make me decide that I would never put myself through that much stress again. I taught myself to put school into perspective, to take my As where I could get them, and to understand that a B grade wasn’t going to kill my GPA. If for nothing else, then at least to keep the hair on my head. And I managed that! I managed to keep my stress levels low enough, and if they started to rise precariously high, I would just automatically shift into a “it’s not that big of a deal, fam” mentality. Weirdly enough, it worked well, especially in my first year of college, and I still managed to obtain the grades and academic standing I needed to maintain my scholarships and pride.


Stress, however, is like the bad ex I never quite had. I’ll cut it off, end things; it’ll lurk, making brief little appearances, try to hit me up every now and then. You know, creepy ex behavior. And last September, it put its foot in the door to make a full body appearance. My grandmother was dying, a lot of things were changing and shifting rapifly, a close relationship in my life just ended without a chance to defend myself, school was starting right up, and a look at my calendar told me I would be so incredibly busy that there would be no free time for myself. And so it struck. Four years later, stress made a full reappearance in my life. The worst part? I felt like the only person to blame for that was myself. I was the one who signed on to be an RA. I was the one who applied to launch and run this magazine at my university. I was the one who decided to go to SU in the first place and take on this course load. And I felt like I was the one who wasn’t a good enough granddaughter, or good enough friend to keep these people in my life.


Cue stress’ homeboy: mental illness. I learned, in doing a hefty amount of research, that certain mental illnesses can lie “dormant” in a person, only to be triggered by a strong enough event! Poor stress resilience (ehem) can trigger the surfacing of mental illnesses, such as bipolar II disorder (heyo). Thus came the second layer of shame when I couldn’t help but think that I caused the appearance of my own mental illness (which is still something I struggle with).


What do you even do with that?


Well, if you’re me, you spend Fall Quarter trying to manage it yourself: doing research, playing around with stimulants (like coffee), journaling, paying really close attention to your moods and feelings, crying, and ultimately trying to view yourself as different not wrong. When my depression was too strong, I bought a fuzzy coat that I so cleverly named “Mobile Depression” because it simulated the experience of wrapping myself in a blanket (all I wanted to do) but in a socially acceptable way that I could get myself out in public. When the hypomania struck and I couldn’t focus on a single damn thing (which, as an English major, does not help with the amount of reading I need to do) I would watch the plays I had to read, or find ways around things that let me keep up with my classes. And I adopted some artistic outlets. I tried channeling some of that extra energy into learning how to sketch and getting into embroidery. All of these things helped me try to manage my stress in one way or another.


Winter Quarter, hands down, was my best quarter. I finally decided I couldn’t put up with the suicidal intrusive thoughts (they were exhausting me) and I decided I wanted better. So I saw a psychiatrist. Anna went on a full health kick, seeing my OBGYN, a psychiatrist, my nutritionist, and getting into lifting and tracking my macros. I was at the gym almost every day, I was eating well (and eating enough), I was taking medication, I was sleeping 8-9 hours consistently--and I was doing well in my classes. All around, I felt really good. I finally felt like I had it all together.


But then.


Then--and this is where I did myself dirty--I decided to overload my spring quarter! For fun! (Anna what the f*ck). I added a fourth, 3-credit class to my schedule (which I later realized I did still need to do because of a credit deficit last spring). I also took on another job. So Spring Quarter, I was taking four classes and I had four jobs. The classes themselves are awesome and I love being in them--but the workload is murdering me. Not to mention the jobs in addition. Suddenly, my ability to workout (which was rather essential to maintaining mental stability, helping me with overcoming my eating disorder in changing my mentality around food, and helping me get a good night’s sleep) was gone. Hell, for the first three weeks of the quarter, I was only getting 6-7 hours of sleep. I would wake up an hour earlier than normal, go to Starbucks, and work for anywhere from 4 to 7.5 hours straight, consuming no fewer than two cups of coffee, sometimes three, before I even got around to eating. And then I’d be up late after class, trying to get everything done.


It was a perfect storm. All the work I needed to do was stressing me out and taking up more time, so I wasn’t sleeping as much and I couldn’t exercise as much (if at all). The stress and inability to workout made me gain weight, which added to my stress and fed my depression. The stress, lack of sleep, and lack of exercise added to my mental instability, causing me to dissociate frequently and caused my mental illness to override my medication, throwing me into some of the most intense depressive episodes I have ever experienced.


I would be walking down the street, crying as I ran my errands. I’d be in my dorm getting ready for a meeting and suddenly have a total breakdown, crumpling to the floor in tears. I’d be severely affected by my body image, crying in self-loathing and then crying out of sadness for hating my body that much. I honestly don’t know how I’m still here except for the single reason that I 100% know that I do not want to die, so I’m definitely not going to be the one to make it happen.


That was all a lot to take in, but my point is that college presents the perfect environment for self-destruction. Seattle U has a flat rate per quarter, so it can be in one’s favor to take on more than three classes in a quarter to graduate early and pay less tuition overall. Being an RA takes off ⅕ of the tuition and takes away food insecurity. This whole “woke” culture and the general culture of academics inspires fierce competitiveness that can be crippling. And generally speaking, practically everyone overlooks the stress individuals are put under and the uprising of mental illness because it’s perceived as normal. Just because it happens to a lot of people doesn’t mean that it’s normal or that it should be accepted, it means that we need to reevaluate the system and notice that something is horribly wrong. I overloaded this quarter in every aspect, and it’s taken a lot of work and intentionality to take steps to make sure that I am not burdened with crippling stress. I started to fit in walks where I could, do my reading in the sunshine to help combat my mental illness while getting school work done, and I accepted that doing at least 80% of my homework was enough. And while this quarter honestly, truly has been hell for me, I can at least take it as a learning experience to say I am never doing that again.


I believe any bad experience can be unregretted if there is something to take away from it, and for me, I’ve found that here. I know that I will only ever take three classes in a quarter, I will never apply to be an RA again, and I will prioritize being able to sleep 8-9 hours and workout, because for me those things are essential to maintaining my sanity. Running on a quarter schedule does enough to wear students down and foster burnout; it doesn’t do me any good to add to that.


Evaluate what you’re doing and how it affects you. If it’s negative, I ask you to consider if it’s worth it, and if so, why it’s worth it. Everyone is different, and a whole slew of factors plays into why certain lifestyles and choices work for some people and not others. Academics are not the be-all-end-all of living, and failure is only ever temporary. Keep things in perspective and remember to prioritize yourself and your health. It’s not worth it to sacrifice those things. It just isn’t.