Amidst finals stress, health must be priority for students

It’s that dreadful time of year again. Finals loom large, even as all of our minds shut off, aching for respite. Thanksgiving break was only a preview of the blissful weeks of rest and recuperation that lie ahead of us, if only we make it through this last stretch. As students, we are familiar with the ways in which physical and mental health tend to take a backseat during the academic year, but especially at the end of the semester.

The pressures of Vassar’s culture can spur unhealthy behaviors, from sacrificing sleep to ignoring mental health to overextending oneself by cramming an overabundance of extracurricular activities into one’s schedule while taking five credits. Students regularly compare how many hours of sleep they got the previous night, joking about being jealous of anyone who managed to hit eight hours. It’s not infrequent for students to have conversations about being wholly overwhelmed because they have to, say, write three papers and complete 150 pages of reading while directing a play and rehearsing for an upcoming a cappella show.

Listening to other people’s impressive lists of activities and agendas has a rippling effect, as students internalize the mentality that no matter what they do, they’re not doing enough. Although it is important to strive to be one’s best self, the expectations that students tend to impose on themselves as a result of the pervasive culture of overachieving can create a community of worn-down workaholics who are heavily fatigued, don’t take care of their health and are never completely satisfied with themselves.

This pattern of behavior is common amongst college students across the United States. According to the 2015 National College Health Assessment, 30 percent of students reported that stress had negatively affected their academic performance within the past year, and over 85 percent had felt overwhelmed by everything they had to do at some point within the past year (USA Today College, “Stress in College: Experts Provide Tips to Cope,” 10.29.2015). Given the normalization of stress as a part of the college experience, it’s important to recognize that, while a full college schedule can be very rewarding, it can also have negative impacts on physical, emotional and mental health. While many on-campus organizations host programming to help counter students’ stress, the support needed to address and cope with stress cannot come solely from students themselves; institutions ought to offer resources as well.

Vassar has taken some valuable measures to disrupt this culture of overachievement, such as House Team Study Breaks or bringing dogs or donkeys on campus for students to cuddle with.

Vassar also offers fitness classes that are free for students, ranging from yoga to judo. These classes are a welcome reminder of the importance of physical well-being to mental health.

The tradition of primal scream, moreover, is a simple but effective way to release stress. Once a semester the night before finals week commences, students gather on the Residential Quad and, at the stroke of midnight, scream as loudly as they can for as long as they want. While students living on the Quad who do not partake may find this distracting, some students find that it allows them to release their pent-up aggression and focus better on studying afterwards.

Another resource available to students who are struggling with their mental health is Metcalf, the on-campus counseling service. Other non-institutional groups make efforts to support students’ mental health, including the organizations The Listening Center (TLC) and CARES. Additionally, the first-ever Mental Health Fair, sponsored by the VSA Committee on Health and Wellness, will take place in various dorms on Dec. 7. At the Fair, students will be able to participate in de-stressing activities and learn more about healthy behaviors.

Besides these intermittent events, there are stress-relieving elements built into the Vassar curriculum. Many students find that having two breaks in the fall semester is beneficial because it gives them a chance to step back from their hectic schedules. Many other higher education institutions only have Thanksgiving break, and as a result, students are not given any time off until very late in the semester.

However, it’s important to acknowledge that October Break, while providing an important interim for recuperation, also means that Vassar holds classes for just over the minimum required number of days. As a result, for the days when we are in session, work is cramped as compared to many other colleges and contributes to a culture of extremes—of either having too much to do or nothing to do.

This sense of being hurried towards the finish line lasts through to the end of the semester. After laboring through the haranguing stretch of exams and papers, students are expected to leave as soon as their responsibilities end. For students who have their an exam on the last day of finals week and are expected to be out of their dorms by the next morning at 9 a.m., having less than 24 hours to say goodbye to friends they won’t see for several weeks or months, while they are also trying to pack, can be an upsetting note on which to end the semester. Vassar puts a great deal of effort into organizing orientations that aid a smooth transition for students into college, and it could be helpful during such a stressful time for students to have a few moments to relax and transition out of the semester in a happy and healthy mood as well.

That said, we as individuals need to remind ourselves that our physical and mental health is important, and we must set time aside to take care of it. Taking a few minutes to meditate or go to the gym, or even taking a shower or a nap, can be helpful to some in relieving stress, improve mood and enhance the ability to focus. Some students are tempted to skip meals in order to study, which can end up backfiring if they don’t have enough energy. While eating and studying simultaneously is often a good solution to this problem, it is important to sometimes set the books aside and share a meal with friends.

Instead of these healthy behaviors, some students turn to alcohol to cope. While partaking is fine, many students binge or overdrink, whether intentionally or not, and feel the deleterious effects of alcohol on mood and sleep.

Sleep influences stress and health more than almost anything. Lack of sleep is correlated with increased depression and decreased academic performance, as it inhibits learning and memory. On average, most college students get between six and 6.9 hours of sleep per night, far under the healthy minimum of eight hours for young adults (University Health Center University of Georgia, “Sleep Rocks! …Get More of it!” 2017).

In light of the pressure of Vassar’s culture, it is worth placing more emphasis on healthy behaviors, like getting enough sleep and finding time to do the things you enjoy such as exercising, socializing or eating a favorite snack. While there are many methods that can decrease stress levels or improve health, what works for one busy student may not work for another. As the semester winds down—or screeches to a halt, rather—it would be worthwhile to spend some time figuring out what helps you make it through. A college education should be challenging and rigorous, but it also needs to be an enjoyable and sustainable way of living. So take a walk, gaze at the stars, call an old friend…whatever it takes to not lose yourself in the pressure cooker that is the Vassar student experience.

—The Staff Editorial expresses the opinion of at least 2/3 of The Miscellany News Editorial Board.

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