Like many of her peers, Stites regularly sacrifices sleep, occasionally pulling an all-nighter, and sometimes skips meals to complete all of her work.
Stites said she is “probably pushing [herself] to an unhealthy level,” and though she noted that it is “probably not the best idea,” she explained that she has prioritized her schoolwork over her health.
University students experience levels of stress similar to those of other college students nationwide, as reported by a National College Health Assessment survey, John Kolligian, director of University Health Services, said in an e-mail. But some undergraduates said they believe that specific aspects of the University’s environment — from selective social groups to classroom competition — promote unhealthy levels of stress.
Tiger vs. Tiger
Stites said she thinks the strong sense of competition among undergraduates creates a stressful environment that often leads to unhealthy practices.
“We have so many selective groups, and there are so many people who just don’t get in,” she explained. “Sometimes it can just feel like everything you do is a competition.”
Alex Shih ’11 noted that having to apply to “everything, such as a major like Woody Woo, eating clubs or even BreakOut trips,” might explain the high levels of stress on campus.
But, Stites said, that competition might not always have negative consequences. “It can be good, because it makes you work harder, especially when you are really passionate about something,” she explained.
Yu-Sung Huang ’12 acknowledged that, while specific aspects of the University contribute to stress and competition, stress ultimately comes “from ourselves,” rather than “external factors.”
“When you work your hardest and then you still stress, then it means you’re stressing about things that are outside of your control, and that’s what makes it the most problematic,” he explained. “I think there was a lot of stress in high school, but part of the stress at Princeton can come from not being able to do as well in things that you spend a lot of your time on or you really care about.”
While Shih said the banter on websites like PrincetonFML reveals the competitive nature of many students, Stites cited it as evidence of a sense of seclusion on campus.
“I don’t think we are necessarily more unhappy than people at other schools, but I think we feel more isolated,” Stites said, adding that some students turn to PrincetonFML out of a “feeling [that] we can’t relate to other students … so we go to this anonymous forum and are like ‘Oh my God, someone is the same — this is great.’ ”
She added that she thinks it may be an attempt to “feel like we’re more of a community, because we are pretty fragmented otherwise.”
Coping with stress
Though the campus rat race is almost unavoidable for many students, Shih noted the importance of relaxation.
“I am an easygoing person, but to be honest, the people I know here are probably a bit too stressed and should really chill out — about everything,” Shih said.
Kolligian emphasized that there are services available for stressed-out students, pointing to Counseling and Psychological Services, which offers opportunities for students to “learn stress management and mindfulness meditation skills.”
“There is increasing empirical evidence that mindfulness-based stress reduction — cultivating one’s awareness of the present moment without judgment and reactivity — has considerable health benefits and can improve the quality of life,” he explained.
Hilary Herbold, associate dean of undergraduate students, added that if directors of student life, residential college deans or directors of studies “suspect that one of their students may be experiencing serious stress or psychological difficulties,” they will step in to help.
But asking for assistance can be difficult on a campus of high-achievers.
Even when students are struggling with something, “people tend to appear that they can handle themselves,” Victoria Tan ’11 said. “Let’s say you’re working at a company: You don’t broadcast to everybody that you’re having a bad day. I guess that’s the way it is.”
Students might be wary of asking for help, but some resort to other means of reducing stress, such as smoking cigarettes.
Though students here reported smoking less than the nationwide average on the spring 2009 NCHA survey, some turn to even stronger drugs. In the 2008–09 academic year, 39 students were disciplined for the use of illegal drugs, according to data provided by Herbold.
Of those students, 34 were placed on disciplinary probation, one was placed on disciplinary probation with censure, two were required to withdraw for a year, one was required to withdraw for two years and the degree of one senior was withheld for a year.
Stites noted that she believes most drug use on campus is not a direct result of academic stress. In her experience, she said, drugs are used mostly for recreational purposes.
“I haven’t known about anything that’s a direct result of stress when it comes to drugs,” she said, adding that the “people [she’s] around a lot usually handle themselves pretty well when it comes to stress — nothing out of the ordinary, just coffee and all-nighters.”
Kolligian noted that as awareness of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder in adolescents and adults has increased, so has the illegal use of ADHD medication.
“In recent years, many studies of college students have suggested a rise in both prescription and non-prescription (illicit) stimulant use, with rates of student use varying greatly from campus to campus,” he said, adding that “all UHS clinicians are aware of the benefits of appropriately prescribed stimulant medications as well as the potential for their abuse on campus.”
Though Stites was the only student interviewed who acknowldeged knowing of anyone who had used Adderall, she noted that “it was not really a matter of stress but more like, ‘Oh, all the kids are using Adderall to write their papers, so I’m going to do it too.’ ”
Huang explained that the best way of coping with stress was realizing “that if you work your hardest, then that’s all you can do.”
This is the first in a three-part series on stress in student life.