In a psychopathology class I am currently enrolled in, discussion on the manifestation of stress arose, as stress is a prominent factor in mental illness. While in many stress is apparent and noticeable to its possessor, there are documented cases in which stress manifests itself physically, through twitches or tics, or even in partial blindness. While incredibly rare, this disorder (conversion disorder) was particularly interesting to me, as I was reminded of my own high school experience. 

In the classic, over-achieving, well-rounded, doing-this-for-my-college-application fashion, I was involved in as many aspects of high school as I could potentially fit within 24 hours. I would often wake up early to go to meetings before school, and I would rarely return home from school until 8 or 9 p.m. My days were busy and filled with stress, but if ever I were asked about my own well-being I would respond positively, confirming my own happiness and mental health. Importantly, I believed it. I never thought much of the constant stressors in my life, and I enjoyed being busy. This raised a very important question for me: Why was I striving in spite of all of this stress, while many of my friends and peers were not?

Stress is huge in college students, and majorly affects one’s mental health. This can be explained in any number of ways, though the exact etiology of stress in college students remains unknown. Particularly at the University of Michigan, I have observed stress-perpetuating behaviors such as stress competition and rumination, which many of us are unlikely to even be aware of, or perhaps perpetuate ourselves. I hope that if we notice and acknowledge how problematic these actions are, we can perhaps decrease their prevalence on our campus and subsequently decrease our stress levels through self-awareness.

I am a relatively relaxed person when it comes to assignments and exams. I was lucky to be raised by a teacher who somehow managed to simultaneously promote both the importance of doing well in school and the importance of maintaining a healthy level of stress. My high school was not very competitive outside of the cohort of students who took the same AP classes and participated in the same extracurricular activities, so like most freshmen, my experience at the University my freshman year was incredibly different from my experiences in high school.

What startled me most about the transition was not the rigor of the course exams, or the number of readings I was assigned per week, but rather other students’ responses to these expectations. Though I was completely without studying skills or experience with vast amounts of homework, I adjusted quickly to the rigor and though I was overwhelmed, I found the transition not to be very difficult. Other students from my small, underfunded high school who now attend the University related similar experiences. I was shocked. Friends of mine who had attended prestigious, rigorous high schools were spending hours in the library every day, our conversations revolved solely around readings, classes, professors and incessant, constant stress.

I was immediately concerned that I wasn’t stressed enough, that I was perhaps not putting in the requisite number of hours each week studying. But as time went on, I realized more and more that the excessive stress my peers were experiencing was hurting them more than it was helping. I think the phenomenon of “unnecessary stress” demonstrated by many students at this university can be explained through a variety of social cues and norms, and if we become aware of these, we can perhaps end the vicious cycle of their perpetuation.

Studying has become more of a social activity than an individual activity, and this often leads to distractions. While studying with friends can be beneficial when the studying is low-stakes, group study puts students at risk for distractions and decreased productivity. What’s more, studying in public or with friends can be a double-edged sword. For some, being around friends can lead to increased social disruption from concentration, while for others it can be easier to hold yourself accountable for studying when you’re among peers. However, it is important to differentiate between studying and socializing. This multitasking of socializing and studying diminishes efficiency and attention abilities.

Outside of studying and classes, when socializing or working, avoid topics of school, stress or exams. While it is helpful to discuss your worries and stressors to a degree and in certain situations, constant discussion of stress logically leads to rumination and increased stress. It is not a secret that students at this university are very competitive. Have you ever found yourself in a conversation where your friend complains to you about their workload, or how stressed they are for midterms, etc.? Have you ever immediately shot back with your own workload or stress level in a subconscious attempt to one-up them? Stress-competition can be incredibly toxic, and not only leads to rumination and increased stress, but is also just bad conversation. The last thing you need to do when you’ve finished studying is worry about studying more.

Lastly, keep in mind that different students require different amounts of studying, comparing your study habits to the habits of another student isn’t helpful to either of you. It can be easy to judge yourself in light of the successful and hard-working students that attend this university, but instead of highlighting differences, focus on similarities. Be conscious of your own position to aid or discourage a conversation, and the effect your words may have on others. When feeling stressed, ask yourself whether your stress is helpful to attaining your goal. There’s only so much one can do to maintain their stress level and mental health, but helping yourself in any way possible will be better in the long run.

Megan Burns can be reached at megburns@umich.edu.

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