To break or not to break (under stress)

When do we push ourselves too hard, to the point of ignoring the symptoms and signs of stress?

Chloe McElmury, Senior Columnist

Stress isn’t unbeknownst to college students—it’s practically our lifeblood. Juggling school work, work work and your personal and social lives is a lot to manage. Sometimes, it’s too much. For me, more often than not it’s a heavy weight to hold on my shoulders.

This school year, I have been working hard. Too hard. At any one time, I’ve had 4-5 jobs in addition to being a full time student. I’m so thrilled by it at all, because I’m genuinely passionate about everything I’m involved in. However, I’ve definitely noticed that it’s taken a toll on my mental and physical health. I do not give myself a break.

I find myself wishing I had at least 30 hour days, just to get caught up or to gain a few more hours of sleep. This is the first semester I’ve honestly wanted to drop out of school. Most days, I’m completely spent by 4 p.m. My eyes stop focusing and my head gets cloudy. I stop caring about anything and just want to retreat to my apartment with my dog and E.R. reruns from Hulu.

According to the Mayo Clinic, stress leads to symptoms that affect different aspects of your overall well-being. These include your body, mind and behavior. In your body, you might notice fatigue, headaches and sleep problems. Looking at your mood, you could feel anxiety, restlessness and irritability. Your behavior might change to include angry outbursts, drug/alcohol abuse and social withdrawal. Any one of these can affect you greatly when you’re not paying attention to yourself and your health.

So, why do we subject ourselves to excess stress when we know it doesn’t play right with our body, mind or behavior? For me, I think it’s part of trying to prove something to someone. Most people don’t know my full story, or anything about me at all. I choose to show mostly the good (but still honest!) parts on social media, like pastries I can’t afford and big lipsticked-smiles. Most people never get the full truth of my being—sometimes that means a breakdown before dinner or just not wanting to drag myself out of bed.

Maybe it’s the cancer, or maybe it’s my family drama, but I just feel the need to work hard. My mom never graduated college (she had me instead) so I wanted to do well here at Hamline. Unfortunately, this leads me to not know how to let up and give myself a few hours to breathe, especially during my last semester.

For some of you, it might be a problem of saying “no.” I have no problem saying this, and turning projects down, even when they sound cool as hell. We become ‘yes people’ for many different reasons; maybe we’re people pleasers, maybe we’re just eager and excited; maybe we feel too insecure or trapped to turn someone or something down; maybe we just haven’t learned what is too much for our human bodies to handle.

No matter which one it is, if you don’t have “no” down, college could become an even more stressful time for you. A Harvard medical study from 2015 looked at more than 67,000 college students from over 100 institutions. The lead author, Cindy Liu, explained that “Some stressful events cannot be prevented and, in some cases, are completely normal. Our study highlights an urgent need to help students reduce their experience of overwhelming levels of stress during college.”

This research highlights and validates that college is a tricky time for navigating our mental health. The team reports that stressful life events had high rates and were associated with mental health issues. While sometimes it’s impossible to minimize stressful events like car accidents and unexpected deaths, we could probably all be better at identifying when we’ve reached our maximum capacities.

I work at the Writing and Communication Center on campus, and often I find myself telling my clients that really they just need a break and to have a good meal or a little snack. Don’t be afraid to give yourself five to 10 minutes in-between jobs to have a good sit, some water or even just a mindless scroll through your social media of choice.