I remember a time when I couldn’t understand what my classmates meant when they said they were stressed about school.
In my mind, stress was something that some people felt, and some people didn’t — it was that simple. And if I never felt it in high school, why would that ever change?
I’m just more laid-back, I thought. I’m chill. Then I started college.
Almost immediately, I was inundated with more work than I could even keep track of. I started spending more quality time with my computer than with people. There were times that I wished I would catch a fever just to have an excuse to rest for a day or two.
Worse than that was the new feeling of stress. I’d go through the day with a pit in my stomach, worrying that I’d forgotten something or thinking about all the empty boxes on my to-do list waiting to be checked.
I started waking up immediately overwhelmed and anxious. Before my eyes even opened in the morning, the internal criticisms began:
Stop being lazy and get out of bed already. Think about all the things you have to do today. You’re falling behind.
The more I wished I could go back to sleep, the more harshly my internal monologue forced me out of bed. I stopped sleeping in, and I started setting my alarm for 9 a.m. even on the weekends.
It took me too long to realize that what I was feeling and doing shouldn’t be normal.
It’s undeniable that college puts a lot of pressure on students. And it should. How else are we going to develop the skills and experience necessary to become successful in the real world? Without the pressure of deadlines and difficult classes, we might not develop the time management and fortitude that are needed to excel professionally.
Without having to complete tedious assignments, we might never learn that in order to get where you want to be, you need to start at the bottom and work your way up. Without being pushed to our limits, we might never discover just how far we can go.
I say with confidence that had it not been for some of my lowest points, I would not be preparing to leave Lehigh as a very different person than the one who first stepped onto South Mountain three years ago. A sequence of jam-packed semesters, late nights of studying and changes in my personal life have transformed me into a confident soon-to-be graduate who is prepared to enter the professional world.
But how much pressure is too much?
Those jam-packed semesters were overwhelming, to say the least. Sometimes it felt like I didn’t have a single second to breathe. When I finally came up for air, I realized that I poured my entire self into succeeding in academics and extracurriculars, and my personal relationships — and happiness — were suffering for it.
Every night that I chose studying instead sleep was followed by a day of battling exhaustion — a sacrifice of my mental, physical and emotional health for a slightly higher grade on my transcript.
And while the personal curveballs in my life helped me learn how to catch whatever life throws, before I reached that point, I struggled through periods of isolation, impossible to face in a healthy way when I was working almost nonstop.
There’s a fine line between formative experiences and breaking points. While the pressure that comes with college is important in equipping students for the real world, the rising expectations of excelling in higher education are driving more and more students toward mental health struggles and unhealthy coping mechanisms.
One national study revealed that between 2009 and 2015, there was an approximate six percent increase in students diagnosed with anxiety and a three percent increase in diagnoses of depression.
While these changes may not sound like much, they are concerning when placed in the context that 43.8 million U.S. adults experience mental illness every year — and three-quarters of them will be affected before the age of 24.
Our young adult years are a critical time in determining who we want to become, while still discovering who we are. Learning to work hard and grow a thick skin are important lessons, but society often teaches us to prioritize these things over our health.
Maturity doesn’t happen overnight. There is a learning curve that comes with growing up, and a large chunk of that curve overlaps with our time in college — a time when the pressure to succeed is at an all-time high, and students are forced to confront their futures before they’ve had the chance to transition out of youth.
Sometimes, all that pressure is a little too much.
It’s a blessing and a curse that there is no “one size fits all” strategy for living a balanced life. The diversity of our minds is what makes college so special, but also impossible to standardize. What feels healthy for one person might feel unbalanced to another.
I’m far from an expert, but after three years as a stressed-out college student, I’ve learned a lot. Hard work is important, but health is a priority. We have to know our minds and bodies well enough to recognize when we are pushing ourselves for the right reasons — and the wrong ones. Everyone knows that college is tough, and like it or not, it’s that way for a reason.
It’s important to learn and mature, and college is the perfect place to do that. But what we don’t hear enough is that your health is also important — and it’s completely valid to put yourself before your grades every once in a while.
The numbers on your transcript will disappear, but your mind and body are going to stick with you for the rest of your life — so treat them with care before you drive yourself to the breaking point.