Thoughts on Stress

It doesn’t make sense to suffer this much because of such a mundane daily experience--and by that I obviously mean school. Stress and anxiety have their place as survival mechanisms in life-threatening situations. However, the majority of students aren’t in any life-threatening situations when they’re in the classroom, nor when they’re at home doing homework or completing any school-related task. But why do we still feel our heart rates go up and experience these intense feelings of worry when we’re completing an assignment or taking an exam?

What we have been taught in seven hours of school per day, five days a week, 180 days per year does not tell us what we really need to know about ourselves. So much of our education has been directed towards selfishly consuming as much information about the outside world for our own success, that most of us don’t even know how to take good care of our minds and bodies. In order to find the causes for my anxiousness towards school-related tasks, I decided to look for answers in human history. Not in battles, or early civilizations, but in the 99% of human history that preceded all those events. Not ‘real’ history. Prehistory. It is interesting to find that humanity is defined by the civilizations and technologies that have only emerged a few thousand years ago, rather than anything that occurred in the millions of years before it. Sure, the societal structures and technological innovations introduced in a World History class can reveal a lot about the world we live in today, but the lifestyle of our tribal ancestors can reveal a lot about how we react to the world we live in today. This is because we still share essentially the same instinctive biological reactions as our 40,000 year old ancestors. Through millions of years of evolution, the human body and the human mind have adapted to very different circumstances than the ones we find ourselves in today. A fear of rejection, for example, would have been a necessary motivator in order to avoid being expelled by your tribe.

Unfortunately, these fears of social exclusion can leave serious dents in an individual’s mental health. This is especially true if these fears are harnessed as a motivator to achieve material or academic success. Most readers of this article are likely to have been subjected to societal pressures to achieve certain academic accomplishments, or have been forced to conceal parts of their identity in order to fit in with a larger group of people. You may resent having to deal with existing in an environment in which there is so much judgement regarding grades, appearance, and a whole host of other things. But there is no escape from it. So how do we cope?

One of the most crucial steps towards shedding these feelings of stress is to simply let them go. There are plenty of articles on the internet that list meditation, exercise and a change in diet as a solution to eradicate stress and let go of negative thoughts. However, while these techniques are certainly helpful for introducing a sense of daily calm, they are primarily reactionary techniques that help in reducing feelings of stress in already stressful situations that can trigger negative thoughts and emotions.

In order to permanently combat these triggers, we must identify what causes them. Stressful situations are often completely out of our control. School stress in particular strongly correlates to the high ambitions and high expectations we place on ourselves. Every school task is mundane in and of itself, but ambition raises the stakes. Ambition introduces an ultimatum. Certain thresholds must be met or you risk failure. Unfortunately, once we begin responding to mundane tasks with this attitude, our fight-or-flight response kicks in and we begin to lose perspective of the situation. For instance, writing a timed essay suddenly feels like a fight for survival. Our heart rate increases, our hands get clammy, and we urgently scribble down the first thoughts that we can extract from memorization.

On the one hand, there are people who need to harness these feelings of stress in order to propel them towards success. On the other hand, we want to feel secure, valued, and content without having to secure any material achievements. I guess the choice is up to you. Working hard in order to accomplish a goal may require sacrificing an inner peace of mind to provide motivation for achievement, but choosing to cultivate a sense of inner peace--even if it means turning down certain opportunities for external accomplishment-- is an equally honorable choice.