My sophomore year of college, I embarked on my first independent research project as an undergrad — a 30-page historical essay that symbolized the apex of my academic career to date. The project required me to endlessly scroll microfilm from the early 1920s for hours on end. My eyes would usually blur and cramp after four hours, eventually regressing into severe migraines and a pseudo-depressive state due to my inability to work.

Once I finished my research for the day, void of food, I’d stumble to the nearest coffee shop and down a few cups of coffee quickly, pushing off my hunger so I could try to work just a little bit more. But throughout my painful exploration into this newfound domain of academia, I also stumbled upon a feeling that I’d never felt so intensely before — absolute capitulation to the herculean power and compounding supremacy of stress — and I completely fell in love with it.  

I’ve previously struggled with anxiety, but it was largely the manifestation of me over-exaggerating thoughts and perceptions of stress factors around me. I never truly found myself stressed about anything too severe. While there was drama, I’ve lived a remarkably privileged life and for the most part I could blame a chemical imbalance for my hardships. Well, I guess that’s the simply-put explanation.

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Different medicines flew through my life. I fought my parents about taking them and I lied to my doctors about the same. But looking back, it didn’t seem the same as this gleaming leviathan of academic stress. There was something different about writing and researching, something so new and gargantuan for me — I would either finish and succeed, or burn out and fail. I was obsessed with the exhilaration of having this looming deadline hanging over me, pushing me to consume eight shots of espresso and spending constant all-nighters in the library, just so I could write, edit and rewrite over and over again.

At a prestigious and competitive university such as the University of Wisconsin, it’s remarkably easy to get caught up in this mindset of accomplishing absolutely everything. We abandon our health and often our friendships to gawk and daydream over the future possibilities — we become too caught up in vying and fighting to be the most accoladed at a place where every single one of our peers have the potential and drive to change the world.

But while this drive and desire can be wildly fulfilling, it’s marred by the virulent reality of what stress does — pushing students past the breaking point. We perpetrate the glorification of mental breakdowns and sleep deprivation because it’s the “college way,” the norm. We brag to each other about how many all-nighters we’ve pulled during midterm and finals season as if it’s some badge of honor.

Stress culture has permeated every aspect of this institution. The College of Letters and Science’s Honors program application even includes a question in which prospective students reflect on the power of failure — UHS has a whole page devoted to handling stress. But what is the validity and point of having a culture where inhumane levels of stress are the expected norm?

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Wanting to change the world is a praiseworthy endeavor, but it’s impossible if you don’t take care of yourself. Paramount to any achievement is yourself — there’s no internship or publication that’s more important than your own health.

I am certainly guilty of this — I exist in the mindset that if maybe I just push myself a bit farther, then the ends will justify the torture of stress we all humiliate ourselves with. I chase the high of stress because without it, I’m overcome by guilt that I’m not accomplishing enough — it’s this odd paradox of what gives me stress is also what liberates me from it as well. If I take on leviathan-sized schedules I become stressed, but the only way to alleviate this stress is through these same activities. Ultimately, what’s the point? It’s dangerous.

Fundamentally, we need to break down the stigmatized barriers of stress and success. You don’t need to fill up your schedule to unrealistic levels that serve no purpose other than driving you to the breaking point — success exists in millions of different ways that don’t jeopardize your well-being. This can all be accomplished by simply changing the narrative from working hard to achieving your dreams, and working smarter to do everything you’ve ever desired — a shift in rhetoric has the potential to ease the burden and expectations of stress.

Adam Ramer ([email protected]) is a junior majoring in history and political science.