Battling Stress in Higher Education
The clock on your desk blinks, its 1:00 a.m. on a Tuesday morning and only seven hours until your exam. You are overwhelmed, overtired, and halfway through the exam material. Your exam comprises 30% of your final grade. Each blink of the clock makes the laptop screen brighter, your eyelids heavier, and progress slower. This is an experience every student loathes. The feeling of a heavy weight looming, irritability, fatigue and much more are all common symptoms of stress. It can feel like a dark cloud over your body, weighing you down causing you to be unproductive and your brain to spin in circles. Whether it is cramming for finals or running late for class, most college students are under the enormous weight of stress: and they are not alone. Being young and inexperienced, students may not realize that the faculty members, administrators, and advisers they rely on to guide them through their college experience are often struggling with similar difficulties. Along with their rigorous coursework, an increasing number of students are working extreme hours just to make ends meet. Rapidly ballooning tuition prices have simultaneously introduced a new and looming financial burden, all while forcing students to balance a full-time education with full-time work just to keep their heads above the water. According to a new report from Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce, Nearly 40 percent of undergraduate students and 76 percent of graduate students work at least 30 hours a week. This doesn’t even take into account the time and effort many spend participating in extra-curriculars, taking care of children, or building valuable friendships. The ways in which stress consumes a college student can vary. They can be a result of coursework, parental expectations, mental illness, and the financial burden of tuition. These stresses often leave students feeling alone in their battle against chronic anxiety, when in fact they are surrounded by proverbial comrades: faculty members who are also desperately fighting off encroaching hordes of pressing responsibilities. Yes, preparing yourself for upcoming exam may be a daunting task, but preparing an entire class of students for that same exam is in an entirely different ballpark. We expect faculty members to be ultimate mentors, equally capable of captivating packed lecture halls with any curriculum and inspiring their advisees with their wisdom, all while conducting research, writing publications, and advancing their respective fields. These expectations may not be attainable without expecting faculty members to give up a healthy work-life balance. On average, faculty members work 56 hours a week, 12 hours more than the national average (2). According to surveyed faculty members, Self-imposed high expectations, lack of personal time, and working with under prepared students were leading sources of stress in their lives (4). These stressors, along with the stress of pursuing tenure and promotion, faculty evaluations, and the focus on research all contribute to a highly stressful environment. The dedication to learning, self improvement, and innovation embodied in the higher education system are the reasons why college campuses are at the epicenter of human advancement. However, overworking can turn these sanctuaries of learning into a joy consuming war-zone. A small amount of stress is healthy, but stress over a longer period of time, like an academic semester, can be catastrophic to a student or faculty member. Stress is shown to be associated with a very long list of health issues, such as: digestive problems, heart disease, and weight gain (3). Not only will it have long lasting physical effects, but stress also leads to mental health problems, such as: memory and concentration impairment, depression, and anxiety (3). Stress happens to all of us and it is normal, so take a deep breath. The important thing to keep in mind is how to manage your stress and even find personal stress triggers. So how should college students and faculty members manage their stress and maximize their success in and outside of an academic setting? Either maintaining a healthy diet, exercising, getting enough sleep, managing your time, having a support system, seeking emotional support, or a combination of these is a great avenue to start. In an academic setting, students and faculty should seek resources provided by their institution. Most universities provide resources to eliminate unnecessary stress and aid in stress management. So the next time you are studying for an early morning exam or preparing a lecture for hundreds of students, take a break and take a deep breath. Find what helps you cope with your stress and seek resources provided by your university to aid as well.
August 9th, 2019