By Elena Hooper
As college students, I’m sure we’re no strangers to experiencing stress and anxiety. With the multitude of responsibilities that many of us take on like school, a job, family matters, and social relationships, we’re often left feeling burnt out, on edge, and like we have absolutely no time for ourselves. And sometimes, we can get a high from being so busy since we feel like we’re being productive all the time. It can give us a sense of purpose and make us feel like we’re striving for our goals, giving us a better future.
Often, this idea comes from the culture that surrounds us, and it’s no secret that the U.S. has a very strenuous work ethic. We get caught up in this idea from a young age that any idle moment is time wasted, and time wasted wastes out potential and can ultimately make us failures. This then causes us to want to spend every free moment doing something that we deem as “productive” so that we may fit this work ethic mold to make ourselves feel good and to receive praise from our peers, friends, and family. But at what cost?
According to a 2015 study by the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, 85 percent of college students report feeling overwhelmed by their responsibilities within the past year. On its website, the ADAA says, “College students can easily feel anxious trying to balance school, work, friends and family while also trying to figure out the rest of their lives. Anxiety disorders are one of the most common mental health problems on college campuses.”
You see, when we subscribe to this very strenuous work ethic, we are also subscribing to the idea that time to ourselves is time wasted. We often feel that we need to jump on every opportunity to do something, anything, as long as it feels “productive.” This can be a very harmful idea to embrace as this suggests that time to ourselves is not productive. But to think even deeper about the concept of being “productive,” the work ethic would suggest that we need to be productive as much as possible at all times and to forgo relaxation in favor of production since relaxation is seen as having no real “production” value.
The issue with this is that there’s a heavy emphasis on production and very little emphasis on comfort. Often, we are expected to be as productive as possible while needing as little comfort as possible, but trying to circumvent comfort to go straight to production ends up leaving a lot of people feeling like they’ve failed. You see, if you’re not comforted first, then being productive is out of the question. Trying to push yourself to be creative, imaginative, engineering, or visionary is not going to happen without a stable support system of people and activities you feel safe and secure in. You need to feel safe and content before you can do anything great, and trying to forgo this comfort in favor of productivity will more likely than not leave you miserable and drained. Comfort has to be the foundation on which we stand to give us support and understanding, two things which very few people can achieve much without.
Desiring time to ourselves can feel shameful for us since the culture we live in dictates that we must want to seize every opportunity we can to be out doing something, making something of ourselves. But what if we’re just too tired? What if we need some peace and quiet? What if we’re just naturally introverted? All of these things are often unacceptable to the people around us, and at the very least, not understood. We are often told that we just need to “do something,” and we’ll feel better, or we’re just not pushing ourselves hard enough, or we’re just being too sensitive. All of these ideas discredit the very real turmoil many people feel from anxiety and stress caused by this cultural norm. Not taking these feelings seriously can leave many people feeling isolated.
So how can this issue be solved? For one thing, people should open to the idea of unapologetic self care and start to realize that having time to yourself and treating yourself with care and sensitivity is okay and that self care is a vital part of having stable mental health. For those still struggling to be open and honest about their need for self care and maybe need some help figuring out where to start; beginning with what self care habits work for you is a good place. Some examples of self care include taking baths, listening to music, going for walks, journaling, collaging, and having one-on-one time with a close friend (not a large group of friends).
Not all of these will work for everyone; the key is finding what works for you and that could be anything you like. Also, learn to be firmer with your boundaries; if you know you’ve already reached your maximum capacity for work and socializing for that day or week, don’t be afraid to say no to things or people that try to overreach that boundary. If at that moment you know all that you need is time to yourself, take assurance in the fact that there will always be a next time and that those in your life that truly understand your situation will stick around. But if at any time you feel that your anxiety and stress is too much to handle is making you feel out of control or is significantly affecting your life in any way, please make sure to seek professional help if you can. You don’t have to go through something that difficult alone.
Learning to accept that we all have thresholds for stress and listening to our bodies and minds when we’ve reached those thresholds is crucial for our mental health. Saying no to things when we know we’ve reached our limit is not a sign of weakness; it’s a sign of a healthy and balanced mind. Knowing how to take care of ourselves and allowing time for that can lead us to living more productive and stable lives. We can educate ourselves on the subject and learn to become better advocates for ourselves and other people who need it. We can’t be productive members of society without first being comforted members of society.