Stress Culture

studente medicina

One of the most visually distinctive images of ANU O-Week is of Market Day, where lines of stalls stretch down University Avenue and the campus centre bustles with more raw student energy than any other time of the year. It’s a striking sight for anyone 3 days into a new university life. Clubs and societies, departments, and any other group that you could think of are there to encourage first years to get involved – it paints an overwhelming, if slightly exaggerated, picture of what it means to be involved in extra-curricular activities at university.

Most people come to university with a sense of excitement not only about getting a degree, but also about being a part of campus culture and community. For many, this means participation in a certain sphere of the ANU world: colleges, faculty societies, debating, theatre, quidditch. Time and energy gets committed to these causes in the name of socialising, building resumes and making change in the local community. It’s natural to say “yes” when you are suddenly offered such a broad selection of opportunities; you want to dedicate more time in your life to doing things you love with people you love. If you have a little free time in between work and studying, it seems like a great idea to join in on a project, check out a new society or start some volunteer work.

This is how we think about our extra-curricular activities: we are given back what we put in, or roughly so. But, here we are faced with a problem: this equation of personal cost and altruistic satisfaction isn’t altogether balanced.

One of the first things people are ready to overlook as a side-effect of their dwindling free hours, is the toll on their mental health and their ability to relax outside of their commitments. One person I spoke with was Laura, who is active in the Law Reform and Social Justice group, among other projects. She commented that “during assessment periods, particularly mid-semester, it gets difficult to balance the amount of time needed to successfully complete coursework and extra-curricular work, alongside the paid work I need to sustain myself. Often this means that my mental health has to take a backseat.”

During a particularly bad point last semester she said this affected her mental health – she started to get daily headaches, was constantly exhausted, and at some points suffered from dissociation.

She added that these are sacrifices she is ready to make based on what she gains from these extra-curricular experiences; “You’re getting something valuable in return that will not only enrich your uni life, but will help after graduating as well.”

The benefits people see in their commitments are often linked to post-graduation futures – anxieties are high when it comes to graduate employment, with prospects more grim than they have been in three decades. Through a less cynical lens, there is no reason not to start gaining experience and contacts in a field you enjoy as soon as you can. Everyone that I spoke to talked about how much they cared about what they do, and how they wanted to make their university experience as meaningful as possible.

What is less often factored into this motivation behind people’s decisions to take on extra-curricular commitments, is an underlying social endorsement of being as ‘busy’ as possible, which is often equated with success itself.

Michael, who has been involved in societies on campus as well as Woroni, explained their concerns about the way the campus community approaches stress. “We have a culture which glorifies exhaustion and over-commitment. We joke and complain about how much we have on, how little sleep we’ve had, how many things we have overdue.

This feels like friendly camaraderie in the face of difficulty, and often it is, but it can also be a subtle reinforcement that this state of over-worked exhaustion is just the natural way for students to be. Sardonically celebrating our exhaustion and over-commitment is fine, but sardonically celebrating something normalises it and in a way genuinely celebrates it.”

Celebrating stress and busyness as inevitable parts of a successful lifestyle is particularly problematic, especially when considering that the ability to live with these pressures is an economic and mental health privilege that is not attainable for all university students. This, of course, does not stop people who possess less privilege in these areas from taking on the same responsibilities. However, the consequences are very different.

In this environment it can be hard to judge where the tenuous line between being comfortably busy and living with stressful overcommitment lies. I spoke to Tess, who is involved in the ANU Women’s Department and other gender-based advocacy on campus, about this. She said, “Knowing that I have to get out of bed and do things and interact with people is actually helpful for my mental health up to a point. But, you don’t know where that point is until you’ve taken too much on and you realise, ‘Oh my god I’m really stressed and I can’t cope.’”

Juggling commitments that require different types of responsibility can often defy any consistent definition of ongoing expectations. This is especially true of any roles necessarily involving emotional labour, such as any advocacy or pastoral care work. Tess went on to share that, “On a quiet week it might not be many hours at all, but it’s a significant amount of time. A lot of it is emotional labour, so it’s difficult to switch off. You can’t just say, ‘No, I’m not going to moderate this discussion on the Facebook page.’ You feel a lot of pressure with people relying on you and you need to be responsive.” At other times pastoral care work requires self after-care which, while it may not be a written part of the role, is necessary to keep your own wellbeing in balance.”

Emotional labour, she added, is a responsibility that people with marginalised identities often – disproportionately – bear, simply due to the nature of the unpaid advocacy and activist work they engage with. This is yet another invisible factor that makes managing commitments and personal wellbeing a more complex task.

When someone has hit a peak of stress with their commitments, it’s often not immediately visible in the work they produce. Tess described her experience of stress at university as something which hits her after an overwhelming event. She said the effect of the work is not often very evident to others, “It’s so strange and frustrating when you’re having a bad time after a stressful week and everyone’s complimenting you like ‘oh that went so well, you’re so great.’ And you’re like ‘I don’t want to get out of bed for the next week.’”

It still isn’t common in any space – not just in universities but also in workplaces or other communities – for discussion around mental health to substantially address problems like stress and anxiety that don’t cause a significant detriment to productivity. In addition to that, recognising and contextualising stress or anxiety comes with its own unique challenges. It’s easy to develop self-doubt in the context of university, where symptoms can be written off as normal or expected for ‘busy’ people.

Mental health awareness campaigns targeting university students have grown in prominence in the past few years, and by no means do they ignore the fact that university students are particularly vulnerable to experiencing stress and anxiety. They do, however, focus for the most part, on individuals and their part in managing their own mental health or supporting others. This is important work, but ultimately, it only tends to the result of poor mental health rather than attempting to change the environments that cultivate and normalise stress.

An environment doesn’t always look like a bunch of people sitting around telling other people to do something. It can be the way someone is talked about in conversation, the structure of a project or an organisation, or the kind of advice someone offers. It can end up jumbled around and enmeshed with other thoughts and feelings we have about our lives. It’s complicated to speak about and more complicated to change.

When university culture works towards placing equal value on individual wellbeing and individual achievements, the more meaningful and rewarding our work becomes. We should afford ourselves these opportunities to know our own limits and our own definitions of success. Help make this space for people around you – praise the people who know when to take a step back so they can put themselves first.