For most of us at Yale, stress is a given part of daily life.
This evolutionary mechanism — the release of adrenaline into the bloodstream causing an increase in blood pressure and heart rate, as well as other physiological responses like dilated pupils — was useful back in the time when fight or flight made the difference between life and death. Today, however, it makes us less functional, especially when it comes to our schoolwork. For the past decade, the American College Health Association has ranked stress and anxiety as one of the top four factors affecting academic performance in college.
Stress is ubiquitous on college campuses. In a 40-university study conducted by the Associated Press, 85 percent of college students reported feeling stressed on a daily basis. And we, as frenetic Yale students, are probably even more at risk. Worse, the University’s culture — which heavily awards achievement beyond its already high standards — acts as a positive feedback mechanism.
There seems to be little understanding about the serious mental repercussions of chronic stress. According to the American Institute of Stress, 75 to 90 percent of all visits to a family physician are related to stress, and last month, Nature published findings from Yale researchers linking stress with tumor formation. In addition, significant brain damage, psychiatric disorders like paranoia, anxiety and clinical depression are all looming hazards for those of us stressed on a daily basis.
And we may be looking for solutions in the wrong place. In 2005, the American Psychiatric Association published a statement with terrifying conclusions: The number of students entering college with a prescription for psychiatric medication is increasing, more colleges are reporting increased psychopathology in students and campus health centers are prescribing more medication. Plugging our students full of Xanax and Ambien may be a chemical fix, but it might be less necessary if other alterations to the system at large are made.
For starters, education and opportunities for healthy stress management must become more widespread. There is, of course, the semi-annual Stress Down Day, but Yale needs something more pervasive than cookie decorating and massages. University Health Services should make a more active effort to encourage student to seek counseling even if stress is their only complaint — implicitly making anxiety a cause worthy of medical attention.
Better, however, than addressing the stress currently present would be removing sources of stress in the first place. Yale could reduce the number of courses required to graduate from 36 to 32. At most colleges across the country, 32 is standard; in the Ivy League only Columbia has a required course load as heavy as we do. For many students at Yale, taking five courses is the norm because everyone must do it for half of their time here, leading to an overcommitted, under-rested population. In a similar vein, Yale could allow students to elect more courses as Credit/D/Fail and allow grades to be converted at any point in the semester to reduce academic stress, which might even inspire students to delve deeper into material that interests them.
This is not to say that Yale needs to become less academically rigorous. Indeed, that is the reason so many of us chose to matriculate here. Classes are supposed to be challenging, but the design of our college lifestyle precludes us from reaping the rewards of such difficulty. When we’re stressed and sick, we do not perform as well as we expect ourselves to and take shortcuts to meet the standards of our professors and the University. I learned from a friend in Timothy Dwight that their motto — from the “Aeneid” — translates to “Someday, perhaps, it will be pleasant to remember all this.” Aeneas told this to his men as they were deciding whether to undertake a difficult journey. Yale is one such journey, but the University — by mitigating some stress — can make it a more meaningful one.
Rebecca Stern is a sophomore in Berkeley College.