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3 Ways to Battle Stress Culture in College, Even When It Feels Impossible

You can't change stress culture at your university, but you can change the way you react to it.

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Welcome to our special section, Thrive on Campus, devoted to covering the urgent issue of mental health among college and university students from all angles. If you are a college student, we invite you to apply to be an Editor-at-Large, or to simply contribute (please tag your pieces ThriveOnCampus). We welcome faculty, clinicians, and graduates to contribute as well. Read more here.

If you’re a college student — or know a college student — you’ve likely heard of the term “stress culture.” Loosely defined, the phrase refers to the underlying sense of competition, unhealthy workloads, and unmanageable expectations that students push themselves towards, therefore leading other students to feel they’re lacking if they don’t do the same. Stress culture relies on the idea that you’re not good enough unless you’re working as hard as you humanly can, no matter the cost. I’m here to tell you that’s wrong.

From a productivity perspective, you’re actually doing less when you’re more stressed. Taking a refreshing break and then getting back to work will result in better quality projects than powering through, even if it feels like you’re working less. How do you battle stress culture, though? How do you say “no” to a community that hinges on sleepless nights, way too much caffeine, and unrelenting nihilistic memes to justify it all?

Here are my three tips to use when you want to stay healthy amidst stress culture, even when it feels like you’re swimming upstream:

1. Set a firm bedtime

I’ve been called a grandma for this, but trust me: bedtimes are truly magical. If you’re worried about it for social reasons, you could always lie and say you’re going to do work (although I tend to take pride in my 10:30 p.m. snooze sessions). By sleeping at a reasonable time, you’re ensuring you’ll get enough sleep, even if you need to get up early the next day. You’re also opting out of the most stressful parts of the night, when people are most tempted to pull all-nighters to study for the next day’s exam.

College can feel hectic at times, but finding one reliable anchor — your bedtime — can work wonders for your health and productivity.

2. Avoid library sessions that surpass three hours

Look, I know people might disagree with me here, but staying at the library for longer than three hours just can’t be good for your brain. Go for a walk. Call your mom. Do anything else. If you need to keep working, consider the type of work you’re doing. Could you try doing some work at a cafe so you’re not surrounded by stressed-out students? Could you do a reading outside and get some vitamin D in the process? Use new environments to your advantage, and learn to gain perspective in areas crowded with people of all walks of life, not just students.

3. Unfollow or mute stress-related posts on your social media feeds

Unfortunately, college meme pages can promote stress culture more than help it. Many people argue that meme pages create a sense of camaraderie among chronically stressed students, but I believe that establishing that chronic stress via social media only normalizes the way we approach work and success. If there’s a specific person or page that tends to post about being overworked or staying up all night, consider unfollowing or muting it. You’d be surprised how much social media influences your everyday mindset — and how much ridding yourself of negativity can boost your mood and well-being.

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More on Mental Health on Campus:

What Campus Mental Health Centers Are Doing to Keep Up With Student Need

If You’re a Student Who’s Struggling With Mental Health, These 7 Tips Will Help

The Hidden Stress of RAs in the Student Mental Health Crisis

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