If you want to know how many students are feeling, just eavesdrop in the library. There’s talk of full workdays capped with night class, sleep-deprived sophomores sprawled across chairs, freshmen juggling smartphones, laptops, desktops, tablets and a few old-school notepads. IT technicians burrow into books between fielding questions by students with withdrawal shakes, fearing their computer has crashed.
It’s a feeling junior Paige Dunseith — whose schedule includes five classes, tutoring and working as a lab assistant and acting as co-president of Global Brigades — sometimes describes as “spinning plates.”
“Needless to say, my schedule keeps me rather busy,” she said. “My days start early and end rather late. On the plus side, I’ve grown to like mornings.”
In a word, it’s stress: that itchy prickling at the pit of your stomach, the electroshocks buzzing through your hands, the whispering midnight thoughts, the spasticness that saps creativity and begs to be quenched by coffee. At its prime, it springs you into productivity; too much, and it leaves the mind numb and the body aching. At worst, it could be a descent into a deeper mental health problem. Tolerating stress, avoiding burnout and staying healthy is about self-management and seeking help if conditions worsen.
“Having too many work burdens can definitely be an intense stressor for people, especially if the stakes are high (in terms of their goals),” Kathryn Grant, a DePaul psychology professor, said. “Just like all other forms of stress, too many work burdens can predict and cause mental health problems, especially with genetic vulnerability. But it can happen to anyone if the stress gets high enough.”
More than half of college students felt overwhelmed or exhausted within the past 30 days, as indicated by the National College Health Assessment.
“I’m in the library like all day, pretty much,” freshman Sam Blackwell said with one midterm down and another to go. “Stress-wise, I’m taking one assignment at a time.”
It’s something even yoga instructor and DePaul junior Christine Veit knows well, as a student juggling 18 credit hours, a part-time receptionist job and teaching a class at the Ray. She said now her schedule isn’t too weighty, but self-care is still something she makes time for.
“I definitely go to yoga even if I don’t have the time or if I have a lot of homework,” she said after instructing a class in the John T. Richardson Library designed to mitigate midterm stress. “I’ll still make an effort to go because it challenges me, and then relaxes me.”
Though it’s an obvious solution, exercise is often that good advice some hate to take. Untangling tense muscles and sweating off steam can be key for a healthy mind — and it doesn’t hurt the body, either.
“When I’m done with my own yoga practice, physically I feel relaxed, and all my tension is gone away,” she said. “Then I feel a sense of euphoria and lightness, like a glow in my skin. It’s just easier to focus on other things because it allows my mind to relax as well. I can fill it with other things instead of worrying, and what I have to do.”
But while stress is draining and a sign of over-engagement, University Counciling Services Director Jeffrey Landfear said burnout might be a “symptom of imbalance” caused by being overworked or under-challenged. Blackwell described burnout as submitting to stress; she loses motivation, naps and gives in.
“Though stress is not unusual in college students, it’s important to notice if these symptoms persist for more than a brief time frame,” Dr. Landfear said.
Grant said it could be especially apparent in those who take personal value in achievement, and can manifest itself in other ways.
“Semantic things, like physical health symptoms, or it could be headaches or stomach aches with no medical cause,” she said. “Certainly symptoms of anxiety, depression and irritability.”
This, in addition to isolation, distress or shutting down, can be a sign to reach out to family, friends, counselors or others in a support system. It’s hard to succeed when you’re dragged down, and it’s an unhealthy way to spend a college career.
“Remember to enjoy college,” Dunseith said. “With a busy schedule, it’s easy to get caught up in studies and work. When you look back a couple years from now, you should remember more than the nights spent studying (in the library).”