Brandeis students feel they face a lot of stress. Given the sheer number of stressors in their life—troubles with school, friends, family, substances, health and so on can really make a student stressed. But as far as I can tell, nothing causes a Brandeis student nearly as much stress as stress itself.
Brandeis students need to be less stressed about stress. Now I am not saying stress doesn’t exist. It does. There is plenty of it to go around, but I don’t think people appreciate exactly what stresses them out. I’ve been here for almost three years now, and I have to say that the greatest stress doesn’t lie with courses or over-exertion, but with people. In the course of your college career, people will cause you more stress than every orgo exam and econometrics problem sets put together.
Of course, interpersonal stress is often complicated and sounds a lot less sympathetic than classwork. If someone asks you what’s wrong, it’s a lot easier to just say “research paper” than to relate the subjective pain of whatever drama you may have stumbled into. Moreover, something just feels wrong about blaming friends for stress when your homework makes for a much more convenient and less conflicting scapegoat. But people should cause us a lot of stress. If we truly care about someone, their actions and emotions certainly have a strong bearing on our own. Getting more stressed from our friends and family than classes shows that we value our loved ones above schoolwork, as it should be. When you identify what causes the stress in your life, and you no longer rely on poor excuses to cover up your stress, you will find your stress is much easier to manage.
Psychologists use three categories for approaches to stress response: solutions-based approaches, emotions-based approaches and avoidance-based approaches. Solutions-based approaches seek to confront the chronic stressor. These might be studying harder for the next exam, going on a diet to lose some weight or some similar strategy. Such strategies work when the stressor is within the power of the individual, but in cases where the individual is powerless, such as a bad breakup or the death of a family member, emotions-based approaches can help. Instead of trying to change the situation, you seek to come to terms with the stressor and its place in your life, a process that can be painful. We are sad when we lose someone close, and we feel pain when we end a relationship. But there is nothing that can be done, and coming to terms with that, accepting it and moving on in life is critical to your happiness.
Both of these strategies are useful in coping with stress, but I find that Brandeis students tend to prefer avoidance-based approaches instead. Avoidance-based approaches seek to distract you from the stress, typically with activities you find enjoyable. Not getting an interview should be answered with chocolate ice cream. Breakups are best suffocated by casual hookups. Poor grades in Gen. Chem. require a thorough drowning in vodka. Such strategies seem like they should work. They feel good and natural and distract us from the pain, however ephemerally. But in the long run such strategies only bring misery. For one, they fail to correct or address the problems, or in any way mediate the response to them. They train students to feel less responsibility for their own actions and encourage hedonistic behavior as a temporary escape. It’s no wonder that studies from multiple subfields of psychology have shown avoidant coping has numerous negative effects on mental health.
When we de-stress, we have to de-stress smarter. I meet too many people whose idea of de-stressing is to hedonistically indulge: curl up with a tub of Ben & Jerry’s and Netflix, or to try to drown their worries in alcohol on the weekends. Both supposed “solutions” are anything but. Indulging, or “treating yourself” has been shown to be ineffective at coping with stress. If anything, it hurts. We become more complacent, more sated. We do not want to leave the pleasures of Venusberg to face the uncomfortable realities of the scary world. But indulgence leads to weakness. As we butter ourselves up, we train ourselves that the response to adversity is comfort, not confrontation. This in turn makes us weaker for the next confrontation, and inevitably leads to a vicious cycle.
To overcome this conflict aversion, we need to teach ourselves to respect our emotions, even the negative ones. We should not respond to emotional situations by covering up legitimate emotions. We have to recognize that some things in life are not that enjoyable. We feel badly when we do poorly on exams. We feel sad when we think about friends struggling with different issues. We feel anxious when we think about the future. But that’s okay. That’s how we’re supposed to feel! While the emotions themselves are not pleasant experiences, they reflect reality, and they give us a chance to understand ourselves and our own minds.
College is a time of exploration, of stretching boundaries and growth. But growth only happens when we reach our limits. When we recognize we are insufficient for the task at hand, we improve our minds and bodies to meet the challenge. But that first requires facing a challenge, often one associated with any number of unpleasant emotions. We will be stronger as a student body when we learn to embrace these emotions, and to accept the discomfort they bring. Only then can we truly flourish as individuals and as a campus.
I do not intend this piece to be a chiding of the already burdened Brandeis student body, but rather an exhortation. I have seen firsthand the amazing creative accomplishments Brandeis students can do. We boast an incredible population of scientists, artists, tinkerers, writers and other eclectic types. Looking around, I see so many amazing people doing unbelievable things, but also lost potential. I have friends who founded nonprofits in high school, toured the world or built their own computers while in high school, but have since lost their drive. I have asked a few of them why they have lost their old spark, and they all attribute it to the same culprit: stress. Not that they are stressed, but that they are afraid of stress. They are afraid of the pain that comes with discovery and the adversity of adventure.
We have to liberate ourselves from our own arbitrary limits. We have much more potential than we give ourselves credit for. By pushing our limits and dealing with our stress better, we can emerge as a much stronger student body.