Kaela Theut: Stop Romanticizing Exhaustion

Monday, February 8, 2016 - 5:56pm

“Last night, I had two committee meetings, got done at 10 and then still had to write my English paper!”

“Well, I stayed up until 5 a.m. studying for my biology exam … ”

As I sat in Starbucks on a dreary Saturday afternoon, trying to fight my exhaustion and the darkening half moons under my eyes with a steady flow of caffeine, these were just a few of the phrases I heard exclaimed by the weary students around me. While listening, I noticed a somewhat startling occurrence. It seemed like everyone was trying to one-up each other over the matter of how much sleep they neglected for studying, or how much they could push their bodies to the limit of complete debilitation.

In the past 10 years or so, with a rise in competitive college applicants (and subsequently, students) across the nation, it seems that being productive to the point of deteriorating performance is the new vogue. A 2011 study by the American Psychological Association showed that students today are more anxious, depressed and have poorer sleep patterns than at any other time in this nation’s history. Psychologist Gregg Henriques attributes this trend to the economic and financial pressures of the unstable job market and the obsession with testing and grades in schools.

We need to constantly be on the go, not stopping to make time for anything deemed “not productive” — or else it seems we are worthless. Those rare humans who seem to never have time even to breathe, who are slender from a diet of meetings instead of meals, are held on pedestals because we simultaneously glorify slogans such as “no days off” and “the only bad workout is a missed workout.”

This semester, I purposefully scaled back on the strenuousness of my classes in order to have more time for both running and exploring extracurriculars. Though it was the right decision for me, it left me with feelings of uncertainty that I wasn’t working up to my potential. Throughout high school, I would often leave my house at 7 a.m. and not return until late at night. By the spring of my senior year, I was completely burnt out. I wasn’t sleeping, racing poorly and had little to no interest in academics. I couldn’t maintain my façade of inhuman productivity forever.

Last night, I got eight hours of sleep due to the fact that I have a manageable workload and have finally figured out how to prioritize my time. Yet, I was left feeling strangely guilty about my decision to choose what worked best for me, and ultimately, the fact that I was not living up to society’s expectations of what a truly “good” student does during the night (spending it in the library). As I’m sleeping, I thought, other people are out there working hard to expand their knowledge and fulfill their hopes and dreams — while I lie here like a rock in my bed.

Instead of paying tribute to the things that matter such as balance, self-care and emotional well-being, it seems that our society has turned toward romanticizing exhaustion and anxiety. Coffee is not seen as a delicious beverage, but as a way of pumping caffeine into one’s body after too many hours studying into the late hours of the night. Of course, every so often, a very late night due to hours of work is inevitable — and part of the college experience. I am by no means declaring that students need to simply stop studying so they can suddenly morph into perfectly rested human beings.

However, we can only run on fumes for so long. Our body does not function on lack of sleep. Numerous studies have shown that over time, low sleep levels contribute to higher rates of anxiety, depression, poor academic performance and even obesity.

In life, it is impossible to constantly be going — we are humans, not energizer bunnies. Thus, pushing, pushing, pushing will inevitably lead us over the brink of a total breakdown. In competitive running, for example, if you never scale back, you will eventually wear your body down and experience massive declines in performance. Though it is tempting to go out and pound the pavement for miles and miles every single day, desperately chasing a dream, it’s important to listen to your body. Doing too much with no recovery time is the reason a plethora of stress fractures and other injuries leave heartbroken runners pedaling sadly on the stationary bike for large portions of their season.

Runners and, to a greater extent, all athletes, are encouraged to take care of their bodies and choose sleep over “cram sessions” and adequate nutrition over missed meals. We know our bodies will simply not perform at high levels if we fail to refuel the energy we are taking out of it.

However, why isn't this message of proper refueling and balance being shared with all students? Though we all use our bodies in different ways, everyone has the same basic human needs. At our very core, food, rest and hydration keep us going — but a good laugh with friends, a day of simply doing nothing but watching Netflix and drinking hot chocolate or a nice walk in the sun never fails to boost my overall mindset. A strong GPA and work ethic will take you far in life, but someone who does not ever stop and cut back every once in a while will inevitably burnout.

This belief in never taking a day off — even amid injury or sickness, or days when you simply feel like you have the entire world on your shoulders — is twisted. That mindset is how I ended up with two stress reactions in my legs and mental burnout. The belief in “no days off” that is supposed to promote success and productivity, ironically halted my progress in its tracks.

Though totally transforming a recent social phenomenon is unrealistic, it’s important to know how to take care of yourself when you’re feeling overwhelmed and stressed out. Instead of frantically pressing on amid overwhelming feelings of helplessness, take some time to slow down and address the source of your stress. It is not embarrassing to go to bed before midnight if you’re completely exhausted. You are not a failure if you have to miss a club meeting because you’ve shed tears over whether you’ll complete a paper in time for the due date. The bags under your eyes are not meant to be shown off like a shiny new purchase, but rather an indicator that you need to let yourself recover. Your body, and your mind, will definitely thank you.

Kaela Theut can be reached at ktheut@umich.edu