During my weekly staff meetings at work, we often go around the room and share our weekly happenings. One day recently, I was feeling positive and told the group that I was having a generally good and manageable week.
I looked around the room and instantly felt guilty. One person had two tests the next day, another was deciding whether to drop a class. Everyone had used the word “stress” at least once. And I had the audacity to say I wasn’t worn out.
In an endless cycle of tests, homework, friends and activities, it’s often hard for college students to catch a break. Feelings of stress, anxiety and pressure last for weeks at a time as new tasks pile on uncompleted ones. To deal with it, universities have long promoted self-care and mental health services.
But now there’s a new force, an enemy in disguise: The glorification of stress.
Coffee mugs, Facebook posts and T-shirts with slogans like “my daily workout is keeping my eyes open” and “never bored, always tired” were once a funny way for people to come to terms with the constant barrage of to-dos. But now, they’re everywhere — and the jig is up. Each mantra written in swirly font sends the message that not only is it OK to never sleep — it’s actually pretty lame to be well-rested.
In one artsy Pinterest photo, a woman with bright red lipstick sits holding a Starbucks cup, laughing at something in the distance. Her grey T-shirt reads: “Stressed, blessed and coffee obsessed.” It’s a bizarre combination. The woman’s toothy grin and fresh makeup don’t convey the typical notions of stress, yet her shirt implies she’s got a lot going on. At first glance, however, the image speaks loud and clear: Not only is being stressed normal, it’s part of a happy and fulfilling life. The modern woman loves chaos and coffee, and always has a smile on her face.
Not only is it inaccurate to perpetuate this idea — it’s dangerous.
Many college students’ bodies have adjusted to four or five hours of sleep a night. That’s unhealthy. It starts to become a bigger problem, however, when overworked minds desperately need a break. Students should be able to find support from their peers and teachers when they become physically and mentally exhausted. But in a world that normalizes and glorifies this state, there’s no one to turn to. The effects of stress must become a lot more serious before they reach the level that warrants concern.
And we wonder why suicide is the second leading cause of death among college students.
Certainly, there are many factors that lead to extreme depression. But stress and anxiety from modern-day college life is one of them.
As young people, we are doing ourselves a disservice by promoting stress and exhaustion as cute and routine. We are telling our fellow students that these things don’t have serious consequences, even though doctors and scientists have known for a long time that they do. We are telling people they can’t speak up when they feel overwhelmed because everyone else is happily going through the same thing.
Stress is not a competition. The person who slept the least last night or who has the most assignments due this week is not winning some cosmic game. That’s the person who is going to wake up feeling sluggish and defeated, and who might need a shoulder to cry on by the time Friday rolls around.
So next week when it’s all too much, buy the extra-large coffee, dream of a nap and tell a friend you’re having a tough time. But don’t slip on “stressed, depressed and well-dressed” because one of those is not like the others.