Ailts: Avoid the stress spiral this semester by taking your mental health seriously

Stress is common among college students, but its effects don’t have to be suffered in silence.

Ellen Ailts

A new school year inevitably means the gnashing of teeth and nails bitten down to the quick. The transition from the romantic, pleasurable detachment of summer to the fluorescent lights of a lecture hall is an abrupt shock, like leaping from the warm cocoon of a part-time job and lingering sunsets into the icy, relentless waves of predetermined social, academic and extracurricular responsibilities. The beginning of the school year always seems to come just as I begin to settle into a peaceful routine of few obligations; it has always been, and will continue to be, unnerving. 

While my own levels of anxiety might be in the minority, the number of students who deal with similar issues is still surprising: the American Psychological Association found in a nationwide survey that 95 percent of college counseling center directors said the number of students with serious psychological issues is a growing concern, with over 40 percent of students dealing with anxiety. Self-inflicted stress is an unavoidable facet of the human condition, but the external pressures of higher education are undeniable, and shared among most, if not all, college students. 

The types of stress that young people feel in college are varied, but it seems to me that many concerns stem from a sense of running out of time. It’s an odd predicament to have your whole life thus far organized around an institution, but know that soon, it won’t be there to structure your life anymore. College can feel like one long obstacle course to that vague and distant destination of True Adulthood, a series of tests to the character and shocks to the system in order to weed out the weak. Your future self is being crystallized right now, and so there’s a certain amount of scurrying around, frantically trying to secure an identity and, more importantly, pad your resume before you enter the world in your final adult form. 

It’s totally untrue, of course. The cliche of change being the only constant is true, as far as I can tell. Yet, I’ve always respected the process of education, as though it were some kind of monastic rite of passage, the deliberate ascension of a mountaintop. But if I’m reaching the peak now, the other side looks like a sharp drop-off, an unscalable cliff. 

It’s no surprise that college is so laden with expectations. It’s the accumulation of your whole life so far, that degree you spent 17-odd years working toward — this thing is important now, it really matters, you’ve committed to it and you should be good at it. The goal is to become a whole, marketable person. Making yourself into a product is an ambition rarely discussed explicitly, but the subconscious pressure to machine-ify yourself runs deep. The pre-status anxiety and generalized pressures of college color almost every undergraduate experience, but they don’t necessarily have to.

Taking your mental health seriously is a key step in dealing with stress, and a good lesson to learn and practice well into adult life. Discussing the stigma around mental health is almost a broken record at this point, but the message still holds true.

Boynton Health offers a myriad of underutilized mental health services, and it’s no secret that just venting about your stresses, especially to an impartial audience, can often be a big help. Who knows — if you take care of yourself and recognize that your health and happiness comes before any immediate short-term goal, you might almost enjoy yourself this semester.