Thrive on Campus//

Finding Comfort in Discomfort

Being comfortable with being uncomfortable is the first step in cultivating an awareness that our life experiences gravitate towards this cyclical nature of ease and hardship.

By Marie Maerz/Shutterstock
By Marie Maerz/Shutterstock

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.

I have always admired the sentiment of “becoming comfortable with being uncomfortable.” I first encountered this phrase in high school from my rowing coach, who challenged me to lean into the physical pain produced by the sport. Persisting through the lactic acid build up during 2,000-meter erg races was definitely an uncomfortable sensation, and I wondered how I was supposed to find comfort while being in intense physical agony. Since graduating high school, I’ve realized how the meaning of this phrase extends beyond solely physical discomfort. Becoming comfortable with discomfort has developed a deeper meaning in my life, shaping my perspective on personal growth and challenging me to learn how to better embrace change.

A recent event that sparked the turning point, shifting my perspective, occurred during this past semester in college, as I was pushed far out of my comfort zone. I felt overwhelmed by the need to perform a balancing act, in conjunction with facing the pressure of expecting to excel in my various commitments across my academic and personal life. Classes soon became an after-thought, as my mind was constantly preoccupied with recruiting for summer internships during the first two months of school. Meanwhile, I was grappling with the reality of leaving WashU for the spring semester, abandoning my routine and close friends, to study abroad in Scotland. Over the course of those two months, it felt as if my mental health was close to deteriorating at times. It was harder than I anticipated to simultaneously navigate career options while also try to focus on being a student, one that could achieve academically and create time for myself and for my friends. As I became so focused on trying to secure a job for the upcoming summer, and overwhelmed by the amount of work I had to complete every day, I began to distance myself from my friendships, which led me to feel isolated, lonely, and detached. Luckily, I was fortunate enough to receive a few job offers, which helped ease the stress of recruiting, and left me with the remainder of the semester to focus more on school and my friendships.

However, as my mind began to feel relieved from seeking an internship, the space which occupied those stresses soon became saturated by a newfound anxiety. Instead, I became preoccupied with the fear of what the next change in my life would mean for me, and how it would shape the world in which I had created for myself at WashU. My emotions were layered and often times conflicting, only making it harder to assess my attitude towards the concept of change—I knew I was excited and enthusiastic to have the opportunity to study in Europe, yet I also felt scared to leave a place I felt comfortable in, and was just beginning to truly enjoy. I did not want to leave my existing friends, and grew saddened over the reality that the new relationships I began to develop, mostly platonic and one that unexpectedly turned romantic, were soon-to-be put on pause. I fought hard to reason through these changes and to remind myself that life is a series of transitions.

As I try to make peace with the reality of life as transitional experiences, I now interpret the phrase “becoming comfortable with being uncomfortable” in a new light. I am realizing it is much easier said than done to actively shift one’s mindset into embracing new opportunities, and developing an excitement and curiosity for what is to come. It is important to acknowledge that these worries are natural, but instead of agonizing over the negativity of change, work towards accepting the fact that as we mature, we are constantly pushed out of our comfort zones, and that our physical reactions and mental dialogue shape our psychological resilience. We cannot change the present, but we do have agency over how we respond to it. I began to notice that feeling joyous and having a sense of security ebbs and flows, despite the general state of one’s mental health. Being comfortable with being uncomfortable is the first step in cultivating an awareness that our life experiences gravitate towards this cyclical nature of ease and hardship. Often times, they co-exist, which makes understanding and accepting change even more challenging. But once we can recognize that change is inevitable, the change itself and following transitional period may be easier to accept. If we can accept change, we can better alter our mindset towards one that embraces transitions, where we can maintain gratitude for the past while seek to pursue the good for what lies ahead.

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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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