Thrive on Campus//

The Mindset Shift You Need to Start Enjoying College

Participating in clubs and working jobs is a valuable part of the college experience, but these activities can quickly become detrimental to our mental health when we feel the pressure to overexert ourselves. Here’s how to avoid the nagging voice that urges us to do too much.

art of line / Shutterstock
art of line / 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.

“Just say no”, first popularized as an anti-drug slogan by former First Lady Nancy Reagan in the 1980s, has taken on broader meaning in today’s society, and is generally easier said than done for many of us. While the phrase usually refers to saying no to other people’s demands of you, it is also applicable in a different manner that is especially relevant to college students, and not in the way you might think. But why do we have difficulty executing this expression in our high-pressure lives? The two main reasons are that we don’t want to disappoint others or ourselves, and we believe we can juggle everything. 

According to the 2018 spring National College Health Assessment, students cited stress, work, anxiety, and participation in extracurriculars as the top factors affecting their individual academic performances. Additionally, over 60% of the college students reported that they had experienced “overwhelming anxiety” in the past year. There are various factors that contribute to this staggering statistic, but prominent components include the pressure to take on too much and to not show failure while doing so. 

For example, Katie, a freshman in college, begins with a blank slate and a pristinely unmarked schedule. She attends the club fair and quickly fills those empty slots with all of the new extracurriculars she’s been meaning to try. However, one glance at her friends’ schedules tells her that she’s not doing enough.  So Katie adds a weekly volunteering position, an internship in the city, and an on-campus job. Katie finally feels like she deserves a place at her school, when months later, anxiety and burnout inconspicuously sneak up on her. 

The suffocating pressure to fill up one’s schedule and be perpetually busy in college is all too familiar and can come internally or externally from friends, family, or future career expectations. Feelings of guilt can arise if you feel like you are not making the most of your campus resources, while symptoms of anxiety and depression can result if you work yourself too hard. Furthermore, the drive to further your impending career in every possible way is another factor in the burnout epidemic. Sonny Varela, a rising sophomore at the University of Chicago, reflects on the pressure she personally feels at school. She writes, “Going to a top tier university is so strange because you’re suddenly surrounded by individuals who deserve to be there, meaning they’re some of the most intellectual, creative, unique human beings…In fact, most times it appears that they’re doing better or more than you, thus creating this pressure to do as many extracurriculars you can, and not only that, but the most impressive ones earn leadership roles within those settings. Students in these universities are exerting so much energy in an overwhelming amount of directions. On one hand, it’s good, because by being pushed, I am shown every day that I can do more than I thought. On the other hand, any time I step out of the bubble that my campus has become and interact with other individuals around my age, I am dumbfounded by that massive difference in expectations and standards.”

The solution to finally enjoying college lies not only in the important phrase “Find balance,” but also in the student’s individual power to proactively refuse the opportunities that don’t add meaning or joy. Understanding that each student has a unique work ethic, various needs for downtime, and differing abilities to multi-task are key components in successful mind-shifting. Moreover, tuning out “busy-bragging”—the cultural phenomenon of complaining how overwhelmed one is—can be a useful tool in ignoring the competitive atmosphere of your campus. 

This is not to say that you should restrain yourself from exploring and joining a plethora of rewarding on-campus communities. For even a small change in perspective will allow you to not feel the obligation to listen to the societal, academic, and familial pressures that encourage you to “stretch yourself too thin.” Being able to mindfully say no to your parents, school counselors, and yourself will free you from the heavy burden that many students carry.  Shifting your mindset from “I need to do everything in order to succeed” to “When I channel my efforts into a few meaningful activities, I am most successful” is the solution to enjoying a fulfilling college experience. 

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People look for retreats for themselves, in the country, by the coast, or in the hills . . . There is nowhere that a person can find a more peaceful and trouble-free retreat than in his own mind. . . . So constantly give yourself this retreat, and renew yourself.

- MARCUS AURELIUS

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