Of Bears and Breakdowns
Updated: Nov 18, 2020
By Marie Peffenköver
Stress is one of the most commonly used words of the last years. Everyone knows it, the feeling of not being able to see the wood for the trees anymore, headaches, tiredness. And not only students feel like this. I know six-year olds who already suffer from insomnia or tinnitus. While on the one hand our living situations are way better than those of our parents or grand-parents, I often have the feeling that life is deprived of its quality. Nadine Burke Harris, one of the leading health experts in the US, once gave an example that I find quite fitting. Just consider what she says: Imagine you walk through a forest. The sun is shining, the weather is great. Suddenly, you hear a sound and turn around. A bear is standing there, watching you with small yellow eyes. Your instincts tell you: danger! And then something happens to your brain which might decide over survival and death. After your brain has processed the signal of immediate danger, the hormone gland hypothalamus starts working. It sends chemical messengers through your body which accelerate your breath, contract your pupils and circulate adrenaline through your body.
So, now you’re prepared to either fight (which might not be a good idea) or run. In any case, you are ready. And if you ever participated in a sports competition, spoke in front of a lot of people or if you are nervous before an exam, you know this feeling. But now imagine you have to face this situation every day. You cannot escape. And no matter whether you’re doing good or bad, you have to come back. And suddenly, this life-saving mechanism makes you sick. This is actually how a lot of students feel right now. You always need to be better, strive higher, work harder, to be professional, reliable and well-prepared.
According to a study by the Huffington Post and the University of Cleveland, about 85% of students suffer from stress. 42% of them even show signs of a severe depression.
We are living in a world of superlatives. And it demands its price. I don’t know if you ever noticed it, but taking a look around in the lecture hall, the library or your tutorial session, you can always see a lot of students who are biting their fingernails, scratching their wrist or chin or are chewing on a strand of hair. A lot of people have sleeping problems; they either sleep too little or too much. Pretty much everyone is concerned. Yet no one talks about it. Why not?
I have given a lot of thoughts to that. Most importantly is the fact that in most professions, weakness is not allowed anymore. Those of you who are studying law, politics, economics or management are certainly hoping to get a well-paid job one time, a big car, a house. And who doesn’t? The problem is that if you want to enter today’s labour market, you have to constantly prove yourself.
Did you ever write a letter of motivation? Or did you ever have an interview for an internship, a job or a scholarship? No matter for what, when and how, we are weighed, measured and might be found wanting. True, this has never been different and you will always face such situations. But it has become harder. The World Wide Web, free movement, globalisation – if a firm is not satisfied with you, it can technically look all over the world to find a more suitable candidate. To be heard, you have to be louder than others – and often, this makes you hoarse.
A job interview: One of the situations where you need to stand out of the crowd
Let’s come back to the example with the bear. A bit of stress is okay. It is even healthy. Whether you are facing a bear or an exam, as soon as your body starts pumping adrenaline through your bloodstream, you are concentrated. But too much of the good can be a curse as well. Studying, writing papers, reading texts, preparing for debates, maybe being committed to a social project, leisure, sports – if you face that bear every day, you either have to beat it or be beaten yourself.
Some people succeed in this better than others. Currently, psychologists have developed the terms “burnout generation” and “millennium burnout” for young people between fifteen and thirty to thirty-five years. According to research by the Huffington Post, about half of young adults in their twenties show first signs of this stress disorder. It is true that burnout has become a bit of a trend disease nowadays. But even if only a half of this estimated number really burns out in the next years, these statistics are quite shocking as this would mean that a quarter of our society gets sick from the expectations imposed upon them.
So, who then is to blame? Well, I don’t know. Maybe the big evil Globalisation (this always works pretty well in sociology courses). Maybe the Economy. Or maybe our Society from which we have to hide failures. Maybe all three together. Be that as it may, we have to put up with it. This finding is definitely not mind-blowing, but it might help you to take things a bit easier. I just think what we often tend to forget is that life is more than work.