Academia’s Glorified Sickness

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DanWeek nine is hell, and it’s expected to be.

The library is bloated with students and filled with the anxious rhythm of tapping feet and clicking pens, punctuated by exasperated sighs. Caffeine smothers fatigue.

Trying to conjure a paper from a blank screen, stress first creeps into my jaw, grinding my teeth. My appetite dissolves and later that night, I toss and turn, kept awake by an agitated mind. The next morning a cold swells my throat and pushes into an ache behind my eyes. At the library, I’m greeted by familiar tired eyes and fidgeting hands.

Every fall, winter and spring, the cycle will repeat itself. Stress, despite its well-documented danger, is normalized in academia. While the university provides resources to alleviate stress, significant sects of academic culture continue to incubate it, at best dismissing it and at worst glorifying stress as “hard work.”

Stress — the body’s physical form of anticipation — helps in small amounts. To keep the mind and body alert for danger, blood pressure rises and the heart beats slightly faster. The immune and digestive systems are temporarily compromised to divert energy to muscles. This response to momentary anxiety is natural and helps you react to the demand of a given situation.

But when stress becomes routine, the short term benefits turn into long-term affliction. The immune system, functioning at a lower tempo, leaves the body vulnerable to illness. The respiratory, nervous and reproductive systems are compromised.

Illustration by Kelsey Hill.
Illustration by Kelsey Hill.

Stress can contribute to the development of major illnesses, such as heart disease, depression and obesity, according to the American Psychological Association. Dr. Robert Sapolsky, Stanford neuroscientist and expert on stress, testifies to the damage inflicted on the brain as well — impaired memory from injury to the hippocampus and compromised learning and judgment.

“Stress can do something as unsubtle and grotesque as killing cells in your brain,” Sapolsky said in the National Geographic documentary “Stress: Portrait of a Killer.”

This chronic stress, while ingrained into the quickening pace of society, finds a particular hotbed in academia. I expect to get sick as each quarter ends, my immune system weakened by mental pressure. I’ve had a final interrupted by a student vomiting, the strain physically wrenching her body. This environment of stress is the experience of students nationwide.

A 2014 American College Health Association (ACHA) survey found that 22 percent of undergraduates felt “overwhelming” anxiety within the past two weeks of being asked. Instances of overwhelming anxiety can be found within a backdrop of habitual stress, the continual companion of the college student. In the same survey, 43 percent of undergraduates rated their overall level of stress in the past year as “above average.” My experience falls cleanly into these statistics.

Stress doesn’t always sicken students — some have a higher tolerance for pressure, a manageable workload or healthy coping mechanisms — but sometimes it inflicts deeper harm. The ACHA survey reports that the most common source of trauma for students was academics, more than financial or family issues. And in 2012, a student suicide at Carnegie Mellon University soberly revealed the student limit of academic stress, prompting the university to investigate its “stress culture.”

And stress doesn’t just affect undergraduates. The image of the stressed graduate student is so common as to be cliche, and statistics from ACHA confirm that this is not just a stereotype. Almost half of graduate students surveyed felt exhausted and overwhelmed within the past two weeks, and 80 percent have in the past year. This culture of anxiety to the point of sickness is evident in graduate school, and I’m sure the majority of graduate students will tell you they feel overworked. Many of my TAs have, and what they don’t say in speech, some have spoken in demeanor — high strung or weary with tired eyes.

This affliction of academia is prevalent at the top as well. A University and College Union survey posits that academics, like our professors, are much more stressed than other professions. The culture of stress runs deep. We’re collectively stewing in a concoction of anxiety.

Yet the prevalence of stress has not completely escaped the notice of the university. Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS) provides limited therapy, counseling groups and advice on how to deal with stress. During finals week, therapy dogs visit the libraries, offering temporary relief from studying.

These efforts to battle stress, however, are confronting an academic culture that glorifies this sickness. I’ve talked to professors who hear “stress” as “ambition” and nod gladly and enthusiastically when I talk to them about it. In these parts of academia, stress’s masochism is a test of character. It’s celebrated as strength, an initiation into academia, a badge of distinguishment. Stress takes on the twisted garb of martyrdom and is revered as such.

Academia is trying to teach us that chronic stress is okay. We would do best to ignore this lesson.