Stress Contagion on College Campuses

My first few weeks at Pomona taught me a valuable lesson about the college workload.

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Cambridge, MA, United States - April 9, 2016: Harvard University campus in spring in Cambridge, MA, United States on April 9, 2016.
Cambridge, MA, United States - April 9, 2016: Harvard University campus in spring in Cambridge, MA, United States on April 9, 2016.

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Kids my age are used to being pressured, having copious amounts of stress weighing on their shoulders. I’m 19 and am in the midst of my freshman year of college, the year of change and adjustment. I went to a small independent K-12 school (for the whole thing, all K-12) in the mountains of Idaho. To say kids weren’t competitive with each other would be an understatement. I was consistently encouraged to ask my peers for help. And, for the most part, we weren’t overwhelmed with homework, tests, or college applications.

A part of me chose Pomona because I thought it would be an extension of my high school experience, which I adored. Pomona drew me in because its classes were small, it was collaborative, and it was an elite college with a small, liberal arts school philosophy of encouragement and growth. And that’s what I’ve gotten from Pomona. Luckily, I think I chose the right school for me and my educational needs. However, I think there are certain things that all college students succumb to, one of them being stress contagion.

It’s natural for any college student to feel overwhelmed with schoolwork; that feeling is a trademark of any college experience. Although I have felt, at my time in college, that this feeling of being overwhelmed is often glorified and transferred to other students by way of the environment. That’s why I’m calling it stress contagion.

For the first couple weeks of school, I wasn’t stressed. I knew that I had work to do and I would do it. Then I began to notice my surroundings. People were consistently working on schoolwork, some even all night. I would walk through my common areas and there would be countless kids rummaging through their backpacks and typing furiously on their laptops. I thought to myself, “Am I supposed to be doing this too?” Then I began hearing my friends and classmates talk about how unbelievably stressed from work they were. I was confused — I wasn’t stressed, and I was doing fine in my classes. Of course, there would be nights where I was staying up later than usual studying or being in the library in between classes, but I never felt like they did. And I got scared — am I doing this right? Am I doing all my work? Am I not concerned enough with my grades? All these questions percolated my brain every time I would encounter a situation like I described above. Then, to make myself feel better, I started doing what they would do. It became my classic conversation starter. “Hi, how are you? … I’m good … I have so much to do!” And even when I didn’t, it made me feel like I fit in. I was, or at least appeared to, in the same boat as everyone else. Then I would get home and be in bed by 10, not pulling an all-nighter. I felt like a phony. I was taking care of myself and finishing all my work, and I was feeling like a fraud. I felt like I wasn’t a real, stressed out college kid.

I was talking to a friend of mine the other day when I realized that she felt the same way. In the beginning of a college experience, you try to do and say anything to make people relate to you. At a school like mine, the easiest way was to emphasize the workload. And while I have absolutely no proof backing this up, I think a lot of kids in college spend a good portion of their time thinking about the stress instead of addressing what needs to be done. I also think that when some of your only interactions with other kids your age are ones about homework, that’s all you start to think about. My advice? If you can, try to take some time out of your day to breathe. Do what will take your mind off of whatever’s weighing you down — it can even be for just an hour! I found that doing something I love, even if that means taking some time away from my laptop (I know, gasp!), makes me work even better. Pay attention to yourself and your needs, not what everyone around you is fixated on.  

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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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