As a third-year college student, I just got through the caffeine-driven relay race known as finals week. With the single-minded focus of a 400-meter sprinter, I charge until I can pass the baton to that next paper, and that next exam, until it's Friday and I can hibernate through spring break. One seeming upside to this bodily self-abuse: I get lots of camaraderie. At any time of the night, students could be found in the numerous study areas that allow 24-hour access for finals preparation. They can be found splayed over couches solving economics p-sets, typing papers, and cramming for that test people know no number of hours of studying for could guarantee an A.
College students' ability to deny basic needs like sleep can oftentimes seem like a badge of honor proving we are reckless and young. At my school, it can seem like a competition to see who can stay up longer to study, and pulling all-nighters seems like proof we are true UChicago students. One's talk of working grueling hours in the library is met with solidarity and sympathetic laughter, while taking a break or decreasing course load seems to be associated with weakness.
"College students' ability to deny basic needs like sleep can oftentimes seem like a badge of honor proving we are reckless and young."
I'm a natural workaholic, and my tendency is to pile on more commitments than I can handle. Whether it is getting involved in another activity or perfecting assignments, I constantly feel like I could be doing more to learn or maximize the available resources. Recently, however, I've come to wonder if self-denial and spending all these hours in the library are always laudable virtues. Is it really more responsible to finish that reading, even if it's way past normal waking hours? Is it really crucial to ace that test, even if it means significant stress and anxiety?
Jeffrey E. Barnett of the American Psychological Association states that self-care--acts that prioritize a healthy mind, body and soul--is an ethical imperative. Self-care is a good thing, and people ought to factor it in when planning their schedules. This does not seem to match popular attitudes at many colleges, where self-care does not seem to be a part of the student body's vocabulary. Many students feel depressed and overworked, and sometimes feel as if there is no other choice than to continue pushing themselves past their limits. Intentionally making time for exercise, sleep, and play, or taking on an easier workload does not seem to be a popular habit.
"Many students feel depressed and overworked, and sometimes feel as if there is no other choice than to continue pushing themselves past their limits."
A year ago, Yale University student Luchang Wang jumped off the Golden Gate Bridge, leaving behind a Facebook post saying that she needed time off to heal from deep emotional pain. She was afraid to do so in case she would not be allowed back to school.
This story is saddening but not very shocking. Given the number of students who suffer from depression or anxiety disorders, there seems to be a prevailing culture of stress in United States colleges in which students are pressured until they feel they have no way out. The mindset of idolizing self-denial and overworking oneself at the expense of physical and psychological well-being seems to be one that ought to be re-examined.
Barnett recommends that people make adequate time for themselves, do things they enjoy, and take care of themselves physically as well as spiritually. He emphasizes the importance of saying no, not isolating oneself, and keeping in mind the fact that self-care is a positive thing. This includes intentionally making time for a hobby you enjoy, spending time with friends or loved ones, and/or exercising regularly and maintaining a healthy diet.
"Taking breaks and letting our minds rest could be an effective strategy for achieving our goals in the long run, because stress or lack of sleep can hinder productivity."
He makes a powerful point. If we want to improve our psychological and emotional health, college students could perhaps benefit from changing their mindsets and relationships to work. Taking breaks and letting our minds rest could be an effective strategy for achieving our goals in the long run, because stress or lack of sleep can hinder productivity. Maybe the next time a friend bemoans having to pull an all-nighter for a class, we can think about how our response may perpetuate a culture that idolizes self-destructive behavior. Perhaps rather than laughing or saying that we understand their struggle, we can gently encourage them to take a break. Or, if it's you who's putting in those late-night hours, maybe go home for sleep rather than the campus cafe for coffee. You deserve it. You matter, and your health matters.
The article originally appeared on The Chicago Maroon.
This post is part of our series on sleep culture on college campuses. To join the conversation and share your own story, please email our Director of College Outreach Abby Williams directly at firstname.lastname@example.org. And you can find out here if the #SleepRevolution College Tour will be visiting your campus, and learn how you can get involved. If your college is not one of the colleges already on our tour and you want it to be, please get in touch with Abby.