Stress is a commonality that underpins the experience of students. Our lives are filled with a multiplicity of influences, whether we actively recognize them or not. The most obvious and trendy-to-criticize influence is social media. The vast majority of students on campus utilize some form of social media, with YouTube, Snapchat, Instagram, Twitter, Facebook and Whatsapp being some of the most popular platforms for young people. Our 24/7 access to social media serves as a constant connection to influences and an inherent comparison to others.
But the pressure goes beyond the media. “Flex culture,” or the desire to show off aspects of your identity like your physique, belongings or social connections, is apparent both on social media and while crossing the Diag. While cultural structures add pressure to a student’s role, this is only one factor of high expectations. Mounting assignments, essays and exams, job and internship applications, on-campus employment, degree and credit requirements, budgeting and student debt are daily challenges many of us face. There are explicit and implicit expectations students are pressured to meet; While the narrative of “leaders and best” is aspirational and motivating, the looming pressures of resume building and constant productivity almost certainly add anxiety to student experiences.
Living in Ann Arbor poses specific challenges as students transition from on-campus housing to living off-campus. The housing market is lacking in providing an adequate amount of reasonably priced proper living spaces, while high-rises multiply and the student and working population grow. Renting practices are complicated by limited space and a short time frame of contract signing, which can expose vulnerabilities landlords tend to exploit.
There is also a noticeable lack of access to healthy food close to Central Campus; While you can get basic staples at convenience stores, to get an adequate amount of fresh fruit, vegetables and protein, students must travel far off-campus. This task is straightforward for students with cars or the financial freedom to get their groceries delivered to their door, but those who don’t have those resources must rely on public transportation. The flaws in housing, access to nutritious food and other challenges stand in the way of students relieving stress in their daily lives.
Education burnout is an experience shared by many college students striving for degrees. This manifests when the stress of school and time management becomes unbearable, draining us of any motivation to complete daily responsibilities, at times even bleeding into our health and well-being. While it may seem obvious, self-care is crucial to avoid this. Audre Lorde, an influential activist and powerful orator, said, “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence. It is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.” Focusing on personal well-being is a challenge when students are already dealing with the stress of standards, influences, pressures and expectations. Tales of downing one’s caffeinated beverage of choice and pulling all-nighters before exams are common. The caricature of undone laundry, dirty dishes and chaotic living spaces are a reality for many. Our well-being is often put aside in order to prioritize productivity — yet this very act makes us less productive.
There are industries that directly profit by advertising to those who experience high stress without pinpointing the cause. Face masks and essential oils can help the symptoms, but we must address the disease itself. This commercialized approach to self-care is certainly beneficial to some but is impractical for students who have little free time and extra cash to spend. Because of this quixotic presentation of self-care in the media, many do not take it seriously. The luxury of taking time out of packed schedules to do menial tasks seems like a joke. It is portrayed as an expensive hobby rather than a fundamental aspect of our well-being — an unrealistic, romanticized ideal that is nonsensical to integrate into our daily lives.
Educating ourselves on the variety of forms of wellness beyond eating healthy and exercising shouldn’t be seen as a luxury, but as a mandatory element for our success. This includes practicing good hygiene for its positive effects on mental health, developing spirituality and maintaining a clean living space. For those who struggle with mental illness, these tasks can be daunting, and additional resources like Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS) may be helpful — it has been beneficial for me.
Our success should not be defined by how many hours we study or how long our resumes are. Instead, we must recognize that self-care is fundamental to not only maintain our well-being and happiness but to our academic and professional pursuits as well. When we invest in ourselves, we are better able to be present and productive while working. Activist Maya Angelou said it best: “My mission in life is not merely to survive, but to thrive; and to do so with some passion, compassion, some humor and some style.” Leaders and best, it is time that we do not simply survive the pressures and expectations of our lives. It is time to thrive.
Elizabeth Cook can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.