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When Shooters becomes a substitute for therapy

meritable mediocrity

To uninvolved onlookers, the troupes of students lining up by Shooters are there for a good time. In several ways, they inspire empowerment. The same, huddled students walking around campus in sweats and yoga pants by day now radiate confidence en masse, dressed in flattering clothing and encircled by seemingly supportive friends.

Despite the happy scene, there is copious negative discourse on clubbing culture. After all, such giddiness is usually inorganic and alcohol-induced. Various thinkpieces decry the fact that this environment is a breeding ground for emotionless hookups and sexual assault. Despite the cynicism in intellectual spheres shrouding the party scene, every Saturday I hear about grand plans to “get lit” at Shooters. Every Wednesday, when I am despondently returning from a stressful Perkins grind, I encounter already-inebriated groups in transit.

I’ve only gone to Shooters twice since my first semester of Duke, but based purely on how often I went during the first two weeks of college, a stranger might mistake me as a hardcore partygoer. For someone who has avoided Shooters for so long, I can remember my experiences there all too well.

The Saturday after my first week of classes, in particular, stands out to me. On a whim, I made the questionable decision to go, with every logical reason not to. Now, I realize that during that phase of my life, I was not in my emotional prime. Already, I felt at odds with my academic pathway, as I was considering dropping half of my classes. Along with that, there were the seemingly noncommunicable pressures to find a niche at college and to keep up with the unprecedented amount of work—common fears that few first-years vocalize. As I shoved my way into the building swimming with indistinct faces and cavorting bodies, I knew that I’d regret this outing come morning.

Last year, after taking Mark Leary’s personality psychology course, I began to dissect my reasons for going to Shooters in the first place. During one of the lectures, we looked at the psychological mechanisms behind motivation. One prevailing theory outlines two independent systems that inspire the motivation behind behavior. The behavioral activation system describes behavior motivated by reward, fun and ambition. On the other hand, the behavioral inhibition system stems from the desire to avoid negative consequences or emotions.

Even if two people exhibit similar behaviors, they may not be acting on the same system. Consider two high-school students, both at the top of their class. The one acting on his BAS may study hard because he wants success and praise; the other, riding on BIS may do so because he fears the shame of failure or criticism from high-strung parents.

Commonly, students in high-achieving schools, such as Duke, tend to display higher-than-average levels of BAS. Personally, however, when we calculated the relative influences of our individual BIS and BAS levels in class, my behavioral inhibition system was much stronger.

In retrospect, my rash Shooters voyage was a very BIS-influenced decision, a shirking not only of responsibility but of fear. There, I could allay all my unvoiced concerns. I found that my goal in Shooters becomes experiencing colors and sounds in their full intensity, to taste the world in its raw, unadulterated form. 

As long as there is no immediate danger surrounding me, there’s a strange release within chaos, the eye of a hurricane, when faced with more immediate and arguably pettier dangers—things such as “oh no, that guy next to me doesn’t look stable so I should move before he spills his drink all over me” or “that tall kid wants to get to the middle so I should get out of his way before aggressive shoving ensues.” The string of temporary annoyances, basking in their two seconds of fame, keep overarching concerns, like existential dread or homesickness, at bay.

It’s the same kind of thrill I get when riding a rollercoaster. The essence of life boils down to base, physical conditions rather than the bigger picture.

Besides running off to Shooters, avoiding fear can manifest in other forms that range in healthiness. Since last year, I have found less dramatic avenues for it. It can be stress baking, or stress gaming. It can be lying in bed, unable to figure out where productivity starts. It was during my first year, due to the novelty of the college experience, that I experienced these emotions—stemming from situations like my first finals season, the influx of unfamiliar social situations and fear of drifting away from high school friends.

Psychologists have identified several defense mechanisms against negative emotions. My Shooters escapade, for example, falls under compartmentalization. These mechanisms also include denial, a process by which some people convince themselves that there is in fact nothing wrong, and rationalization, a generally healthier process that occurs when people make valid excuses for having fears.

It is my opinion that the University itself should take more initiative to promote students’ mental health, especially for first years. At the cusp of every final’s season—this one included—there is a heightened sense of anxiety in the people around me. But the stress of finals is only one symptom of the overall fear that the first-year experience entails. It lies in stark contrast to the ecstatic, glimmering O-week events that Duke showcases at the beginning. During my O-week, I learned a lot about Duke’s academic resources through countless panels and convocations, but didn’t know about CAPS until later in the semester by word of mouth.

Perhaps one small step that Duke can take to promote mental health can start in O-week, where in lieu of some of the spectacle, the University could provide information sessions detailing mental health resources, such as CAPS, or student groups like NAMI that sponsor mental health awareness initiatives. Frankly, Duke can be a very stressful place, and it’s easier to cultivate support networks when vulnerability seems normal.

Carrie Wang is a Trinity sophomore. Her column, "meritable mediocrity," typically runs on alternate Thursdays.

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