If you’ve never experienced palpable stress, try going into an organic chemistry help room at 4 p.m. the day before the first midterm of the semester. Students are constantly moving across the room, talking to other students and competing for the attention of the TA. Sometimes, out of desperation or impatience waiting to be helped, people tap my shoulder to ask about random problems from obscure practice exams that I’ve never seen more and certainly didn’t study. The more time I spend in the room, even after I get help, the more the concern builds that on the night before the test, there is too much left to study.
I know the intent of help rooms is peer collaboration and assistance from knowledgeable students for extra help in hard classes, but these environments can sometimes shrivel any confidence I had in my knowledge of the material to begin with. I usually leave help-rooms more anxious about math or chemistry than when I came in, and it’s not because of the TAs or individual students. It’s the atmosphere of help-rooms before exams that are microcosms for a larger problem at Duke: unchecked levels of stress that we unsuccessfully try to mold into a source of motivation.
Multiple friends have told me that, while they know stress is unhealthy, it also motivates them to work harder, stay in the library later, skip out on hanging out with friends to study. Concern about doing well in classes is natural and expected of Duke students, but this concern shouldn’t be allowed to grow into worry, stress or fear.
For one, stress is emotionally and physically draining. It might give us an initial push needed to propel us into action, but giving in to stress for prolonged periods of time can lead to mental freeze-ups, an inability to focus and in sometimes in my case, stress-induced stomach aches that have previously gotten so bad I had to lay down until they went away.
Often, we need people to vent to about the immense pressure we’re under to keep up good grades, fulfil responsibilities in clubs, and still leave room for a social life. Unfortunately, the most convenient people to vent to are our equally stressed-out peers. We begin to view stress as normal, part of being a Duke student, or maybe even good in moderation. If we’re running out of things to talk about with a someone, we have the topic of our mutual overbooked schedules to fall back on.
Last May, I was sitting in a salon chair for a hair appointment, a few days after finishing my first year of college. My stylist was running her fingers through my hair as I told her about the classes I had just finished, the friends I had made and my upcoming summer plans. While I was talking, I felt her hands pause and she separated one particular strand of my hair from the rest. When she brought me a hand mirror and I looked for myself, there it was. A singular silver hair was growing straight out of my scalp, shining against my normal deep brown strands. It was the exact same length and curl as all of the others, but looked as if all of the color had been drained out of it and had been washed in liquid silver.
I generally don’t get stressed easily. Growing up, my parents taught me to complete one task at a time, schedule my time and maintain an inner peace no matter what was going on around me. I was able to keep this up through most of high school, but finals and “midterm season” at Duke—which really stretches from the end of September to the week before finals—can make it extremely difficult even for the most calm person to keep their cool. On top of own exams and assignments due, we are surrounded by peers who are facing the same mountain of responsibilities and feel the same pressure to do well. But this pressure shouldn’t be what motivates us—there are other ways to garner motivation without risking gray hairs and stomach aches. Here are a few potential sources of healthy motivation:
Think about why you’re studying or taking a stressful class in the first place. Try to draw connections between the class or assignment and its connection to what you want to do in the future. During my first year, my pre-health advisor led an activity where a group of first-year pre-health students wrote their “big why” on a notecard. It was to be no more than a few sentences, and served as a reminder and motivator for us when we were in the midst of some of the hardest classes at Duke that even if we didn’t make the grade we wanted on a test or in a class, the end goal is a career or dream beyond Duke.
Delayed gratification: schedule something to look forward to after a midterm or after you’ve made a certain amount of progress on an assignment. Grab a pastry from Vondy to eat after finishing a problem set, or plan to decompress after an exam by getting a meal with a friend. Shout out to the Pitchforks, whose arch show a couple of weeks ago was the perfect way to decompress after taking an orgo test.
Study with people who are staying positive. Two stressed out people isn’t better than one, and in my experiences hasn’t made for a productive studying environment. Or possibly, study with people who also need to be productive, but are working on a different subject. You can feed off of each other’s focused energies without stressing each other out by talking about not understanding the material.
Make a study plan that includes fun breaks. If you’re planning on studying for an hour, give yourself five minutes to talk with a friend or watch a video. Or on the flip side, my friends and I will sometimes set a timer for a certain amount of time the room has to be silent and productive, and if someone talks or uses their phone before the time is up, they have to do push-ups or incur another small penalty.
I know some friends who say that even with all of these other options for motivation, stress is still the most effective one. It may be effective now, but it can also come with long-term consequences of sleep problems, impairment of concentration and memory, and heart disease. Avoid stress now, avoid the consequences of stress later, and take a well-deserved rest from midterms this coming fall break.
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Victoria Priester is a Trinity sophomore and a managing editor of the Opinion section. Her column, “on the run from mediocrity,” usually runs on alternate Wednesdays.