Ashley Zhang: Relaxing to fuel your future

Sunday, November 20, 2016 - 7:06pm

My older sister, a University of Michigan alum of the class of 2011, always told me that Michigan was a very “work hard, play hard” school, but it’s a phrase that cannot be fully understood until you stay on campus for a weekend and see for yourself the stark disparity between a Saturday and Sunday night. The former is filled with debauchery and cheer, the darkened streets swarming with people fighting the bitter cold on their way to the next party. One day later, the streets are silent and still, and it’s near impossible to find an open seat in the library.

The overnight transformation is jarring, but it’s a reputation that Michigan students have always been proud of. However, the merits of the “work hard, play hard” lifestyle are questionable.

I hadn’t even realized how much I’d bought into it until I was heading back to my sleepy, suburban hometown of Troy, Mich., for Fall Break after a mere month and a half of college. It was like slipping into summer. After all, last time I’d been home, it had been summer, free of worries, midterms and stress. Being back in that environment made it far too easy to fall back into the ways of lazy, hazy days: wake up at noon, scroll through Netflix, pick a movie because “TV shows are too much of a time commitment,” snack intermittently, stop halfway through out of boredom, pick another one, rinse and repeat.

The next day, I became a mall person, the same kind Cristina Yang marveled at like aliens in season seven of “Grey’s Anatomy.” Yes, I just moseyed and ate mall foods and bought mall things without having to worry about catching the last office hours before I had no more chances. And it was divine.

Until Fall Break came to an end, and my to-do list was longer than it had been before. As I buckled down in the library to catch up, I felt terribly guilty about wasting away the days of break while my friends stayed on campus and both studied and partied late into the night.

You see, home is where productivity goes to die. On a college campus full of students, there is a general vibe of studiousness and academia. There are countless libraries, academic buildings and study spaces guaranteed to have students hard at work. In that environment, surrounded by so many people studying, it’s hard not to join the bandwagon. In a study by the City University of New York, commuter students were interviewed, and it was found that many valued campus libraries as quiet, distraction-free places to study in comparison to the distractions in transit or at home.

Though its source may be a mix of peer pressure and fear of societal judgment, productivity on college campuses cannot be called a bad thing. However, I’ve seen that same mix of peer pressure and fear of societal judgment encourage toxic behaviors in the same stroke.

Snapchats of coffee at all hours of the day, complaints of staying in the library until 2, 3, 4 a.m. that hinge on bragging and offers of stimulants like Adderall are all common on a college campus, where everyone is trying to get ahead, sleep is “overrated” and success, sleep and sobriety are presumed to be mutually exclusive. Somehow, lack of sleep has become a badge of honor these days, and it’s turning high schoolers and college students into exhausted zombies who think a mere three or four hours of sleep is the norm.

A common exchange heard on campus goes as follows:

Person A: “I’m so tired. I stayed up ’til 3 a.m. writing a paper.”

Person B: “I’m worse than you. I didn’t sleep ’til 4 a.m. studying for an exam.” 

Person C: “You guys slept? Lucky. I pulled an all-nighter to finish this project.”

Somehow, it’s become a competition to see who can survive with the least sleep, and I’ve even been guilty myself of bragging about supplementing lack of sleep with unhealthy amounts of caffeine. However, the side effects of sleeplessness are more serious than the bleariness and exhaustion of the next day. Scientists at Oxford, Cambridge, Harvard, Manchester and Surrey universities have found that lack of sleep can increase the risk of severe health problems, including cancer, heart disease, type 2 diabetes and obesity.

Moreover, sleep deprivation may aggravate depression or even cause an anxiety disorder, illnesses for which college students — swimming in stress and away from home — are already at risk. While night owls may believe that they are getting ahead by gulping coffee late into the night, they are actually slowly jeopardizing their health and, by extension, their future. Meanwhile, students who do get in their full eight hours of sleep are made to believe that they are weak or falling behind their peers. This sleep deprivation competition benefits no one.

Perhaps sleepless weeks would not be so harmful if students took their days off to relax and recharge, but unfortunately, most college students’ idea of “relaxation” is partying and drowning their stresses. It’s certainly not healthy for students to suffer through sleepless weeks with the promise of an alcohol-fueled weekend pushing them to study into the early hours of the morning. By Sunday night, all the forgotten homework creeps up again, and students cram into libraries until dawn to make up for the wild weekend. And the toxic cycle of sleep deprivation and intoxication repeats.

So how, then, does one find the perfect balance between work and play? Take breaks when they’re needed and don’t feel guilty about it. Whether you’re returning home for Thanksgiving break or staying on campus, eat up, rest easy and forget about the stresses of school for a while. While schoolwork is important and the air of academia on campus is a wonderful environment to study in, it’s also important to take a break from time to time. Whether that break is becoming a “mall person,” sleeping in until noon or just going home, just remember that taking a breather isn’t equivalent to weakness or falling behind. Rather, it’s fuel for the future.

Ashley Zhang can be reached at azhang@umich.edu.