By Teresa Turco, NAMI-UW Treasurer
Whenever I ask my friends how they’re doing, I notice a pattern in their responses: they are always “stressed,” “busy,” “tired.” Their responses don’t change based on the lack of sunlight in the week or the overwhelming onslaught of midterms or a poorly planned weekend bender. Collectively, we’ve come to evaluate our mood based on our to-do list and because of this, we’ve zeroed in on the negative. By learning to fixate on our stressors, we condition ourselves to constantly worry. We feel busy during syllabus week and stressed during spring break.
College life is challenging—we’re confronted with student loans, paper deadlines, exams, and the pressure of knowing this is supposed to be the time of our lives. It is normal to feel stress and to experience negative emotions. But it is not adaptive or healthy to chronically feel stressed, and it’s particularly maladaptive to create a social narrative on commiserating constant stress.
Chronic stress can cause a variety of health problems: prolonged tension in the muscles, pain in the neck and upper back, increased risk for hypertension and stroke, high levels of stress hormones, etc. Beyond the health risks, our rumination on the stressors in our lives sets up counterproductive styles of thinking which can perpetuate our feelings of anxiety.
College life is stressful, but there will always have another exam to take or group project to struggle through. And after college, there will be stress from work deadlines and inept managers and relationship problems. Stressors are a constant part of life, but stress doesn’t have to be.
For me, NAMI has emphasized the importance of mental health. Even those with subclinical levels of anxiety could benefit from taking care of themselves. Everyone experiences mental health problems, the same way we all occasionally get colds. Individuals with anxiety are taught to focus on breathing, to doodle, picture their worries falling like leaves from a tree. They are taught to cope with their anxiety, to care for themselves, and to say no when things are too much. In the same way, everyone should feel comfortable to take steps in managing their own stress.
I’ve come to understand and validate mental health concerns in everyday interactions, to notice how the response to “how’s it going?” can reveal a pattern in stress levels. Listening to my stressed, busy, tired classmates recount the horror of their schedules day after day, I vowed to myself to always answer “how are you?” with a new answer, to come up with something to say about my day other than how hard it was, to stop training myself to focus on the stressors in my life. No matter how busy and stressful it gets, life is good.