Stress and success
In elementary school, we were taught how to use rulers to measure lines. Since those halcyon days, this fascination with measurement has cemented itself in how we view the world. We use grades to measure how well we do on tests, time to measure how long we take to get ready in the morning, and medals of various colours to measure how good we are in comparison to others. Comparison through standardized measurements is almost second nature in university. Only now, we no longer measure lines. Our GPAs are the new standard by which we measure ourselves – and this is a downfall for many.
In an education system that places such great importance on numbers, it often feels as though these marks are a direct reflection of our abilities. Don’t get me wrong, I think university is incredible. There is always more to learn, always something to do. There’s something for everyone. But we often leave out the less glamorous side of post-secondary education, one where hundreds of students fall through the cracks each year into a state of poor mental health.
Mental illness is a real issue, one that is extremely prevalent at McMaster and across the country. By the end of the year, likely half of the people you know will have experienced some sort of mental breakdown. Hundreds of students with bloodshot eyes will have burned themselves out trying to do everything at once by fuelling endless all-nighters with caffeine. Unforeseen circumstances, coupled with a variety of pressures, will send many of our peers into a dangerous spiral. Depression is among one of the most common mental illnesses in university students, but many more hide in the silence that we encourage.
Unsurprisingly, academic stress is a leading cause in mental health issues among university students. A major contributing factor is our susceptibility to tunnel vision. We zero in on getting high marks, and neglect everything in the periphery. Regardless what program you’re in, competition is stiff. We’re young and ambitious. Our blood runs hot and thick, our dreams are big and daring. The bar for success is continually rising, and with that so is the pressure we put on ourselves. When there is a blip in our planning, difficulties and other emotional vulnerabilities are magnified.
A couple weeks ago, I received a set of marks that were the lowest I had ever gotten. I remember being so overwhelmed, I felt paralyzed. All I heard were the humble responses of friends who did well, and all I wanted was to leave the lecture hall and hide in my comforter. I didn’t feel like I belonged in my program anymore. But talking to an upper year student put everything back into perspective. I realized that one mark, no matter how important it may seem at the time, was no measure of my capabilities. The isolation I felt dissipated, and I realized the importance of finding a healthy way to cope with setbacks.
Everyone needs an outlet. It can be anything, as long as it’s something that will give you some time to yourself and help relieve stress. It’s important to schedule in activities that make you happy and recognize how much more there is to life than whatever it is you’re worried about. Some hit the gym. Some dance, some paint, some jog. Some people choose to sit back with a tub of ice cream and Netflix. I write, play volleyball, or spend time with my guitar. Your outlet could be going out and doing something you love, or staying in and doing absolutely nothing at all.
Nobody is immune to pressure. Both the feeling and the effects of stress are harrowing. While finding your outlet is important in maintaining a healthy mind, it is by no means a solution to mental illness. Going to the gym will not end breakdowns, and playing the guitar doesn’t guarantee nirvana. Staying healthy is about taking care of your body and mind, a fact that we often forget.
Our experience at McMaster cannot be measured by how badly we did on that organic chemistry mid-term, or by how we failed last week’s English paper. This isn’t easy to grasp. But by gaming, knitting, or just chilling out, we make numbers and measurements seem a little less important.