Words for the Weary: STRESS

A series of encouragement for college students

Don’t let stress weigh you down, let it help you grow.

The university is a place that promises growth but delivers pain, right? And the biggest blow to our hopes of learning with a smile and soaking in the glory of fresh experience is, of course, stress. Stress is often thought of as a threat to our peace, our joy.

We begin college expecting to learn new information that will aid us in our aspirations. We hope to arrive on the other end of four years with a better understanding of the world and a fresh take on how to address its challenges. But, naturally, learning is challenging.

Engaging new ideas means straining, or even replacing, old ones. This means taking the time to think with diligence and communicate with clarity. Hence the essays and exams that are used to assess where we are in the learning process. The stress of it all can be really overwhelming.

Engaging new ideas means straining or even replacing old ones.

More than overwhelming, though, stress becomes something of an obstacle, that thing that’s always in the way of our happiness. We want to have a good academic experience; we want to enjoy the process of discovery that a university can facilitate. But being stressed all the time is like that pair of shoes two sizes too big that we have to lug around wherever we go.

And yet this stress, this sensitivity to intellectual growth, is exactly the sign that denotes progress. In a sense, stress is proof that we are on track to accomplish what we were thinking of when filling out that college application.

In an interview with Experience Life, an online magazine, neuropsychologist Rick Hansen assures us that stress is natural. This natural phenomena should be used to our advantage, endured as a pressure that reforms and refines. Remember that old adage: “pressure makes diamonds”?

What makes stress difficult to live with is not just its presence in our lives; what makes it difficult is our limited view of the role it plays in our lives. And often we don’t see stress as having a role, do we?

We don’t see this phenomena as a part of the growth that we hoped for. This wasn’t on our back to school list when we were deciding how many pens to buy and what kinds of notebooks and book deals to search for online.

I think we are missing out on a proper metaphor here. Whereas stress is usually seen as an obstacle or a weight, we might do well to think of it as a signal. In their book on the power of metaphors, George Lakoff and Mark Johnson argue that we can avail ourselves of certain concepts just by coming up with the right metaphors.

Our minds are constantly substituting one idea for another in order to supplement our understanding of a concept. In our case, a heavy weight or burden is often the metaphor we use when thinking about stress.

Unfortunately, this hides the helpful nature of stress. If we were to switch metaphors and think of stress as a signal, we would then perceive it in terms of its role in the process of achieving our goals. With this approach, stress is not the obstacle to our success: it is the signal confirming that you are experiencing the challenge, the stretch that leads to success.

I don’t intend to glorify stress as something to boast in or thirst for. Our performance-driven culture does this enough. My hope is that our response to the intellectual, relational and academic challenges that feel stressful will signal our stride toward change, progress and growth.

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