ACTA is an independent, non-profit organization committed to academic freedom, excellence, and accountability at America's colleges and universities.

ACTA is an independent, non-profit organization committed to academic freedom, excellence, and accountability at America's colleges and universities.

ACTA is an independent, non-profit organization committed to academic freedom, excellence, and accountability at America's colleges and universities.

Stress Culture: A Vicious Cycle

July 18, 2019 by Ariana Roberts

University students accept the idea of “stress culture” as an unchangeable aspect of college life. An article in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette describes “stress culture” as “crushing pressure…where driving oneself to the brink is a form of status for some students,” and an article in The Prospect argues that stress “fuels the anxiety felt by thousands of college students nationwide.” I have seen the harsh nature of stress culture firsthand, at my own university and even more intensely at my high school. Many people blame a tense academic environment on professors who assign vast amounts of school work, but “stress culture,” as something that is harmful to mental health, is entirely perpetuated by students.

Stress culture is born out of competition among high achieving students. In a student’s mind, to appear the most anxious about academics is to appear the most hardworking and committed to their studies. Thus, they compete to be the most stressed out of their peers by complaining about the vast amounts of work they need to do and how nervous they are because of it. In my own experience, a group of friends and I may be completing homework around a table in the library, when one of my friends pipes up about everything he has to do in the next week. Soon enough, all of us take turns boasting the amount of schoolwork and other responsibilities looming over us, in an attempt to top everyone else.

"In a student’s mind, to appear the most anxious about academics is to appear the most hardworking"

This competition sparks a ripple effect. If a student’s peers voice how stressed they are, that student may feel the need to be more uneasy about their own school work or other responsibilities in a way that they were not before. This pattern leads to what my high school teachers liked to call “group stress,” when students’ stress levels heighten because they feel compelled to be as on-edge as everyone else. It is easy to compare my own situation to others’ and become more agitated than I need to be, even when my peers and I have completely different academic and extracurricular obligations. Say I have a major assessment coming up for one of my classes, and I am not worried about it because I feel confident in my knowledge of the material. However, if a classmate complains about how nervous they are for the assessment and frets about how hard they assume it will be, I might begin to think I underestimated how challenging it will be. As a result, I wonder if I have not prepared enough and feel less confident in myself going into the assessment. Clearly, this pattern is problematic, and it demonstrates how toxic stress culture can be.

There are plenty of negative repercussions that university stress culture can have on students. Significantly, it can be detrimental to a student’s mental health. In order to fill a schedule with rigorous courses, extracurricular activities, and a social life, the first thing many students sacrifice is sleep. A lack of sufficient sleep can lead to worsened academic performance, higher chances of getting sick, and “increased mental health issues, such as depression and anxiety.” Furthermore, students are exposed to plenty of germs on college campuses because they live and work in close quarters. For this reason, it is particularly easy for students to grow ill when they do not sleep enough.

"Stress culture can be detrimental to a student's mental health" 

Stress culture can also detract from the learning experience of college. A student may become so wrapped up in the fruits of their labor by working toward their career without taking the time to grow and explore academically. Ultimately, college is a time for students to figure out what path they want to pursue by trying different subjects. It is also a chance for students to see the joy and excitement of learning. Stress culture, then, takes away from the underlying purpose of higher education.

While stress culture can feel like a never ending cycle, I believe that there is room for change. University leaders should be made aware of it, considering the immense pressure felt by students as they make vital decisions that could affect student life. For example, academic deans can advise students not to put too much on their plates each semester. Universities can change curriculum requirements to encourage students to learn and grow rather than speed toward a specific career and field. Additionally, students can start to have conversations surrounding the negative impact that stress culture has on their lives. Students and administrators can take steps to foster a happier, healthier college experience. They can remind students that college is their opportunity to experiment and grow intellectually.

Ariana Roberts is a database management intern at ACTA and a rising junior at Georgetown University.

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