But this week was different. This week, the three papers, the problem set, the usual stacks of reading — which I’ve faced before and will undoubtedly face again here — almost brought me to tears on several occasions. It was a reaction I’ve been lucky enough to have never experienced before, that of a stress so great it froze me completely.
It was like flipping a switch. The previous weekend I had been pretty good about getting work done over Thanksgiving, and I felt confident this week would be doable. But when I returned, what had looked like a straightforward five-to-seven page paper, a baby of a thing, would undo me.
Monday night found me pulling my hair, literally, with a mess of papers scattered around me. I wrote and rewrote my thesis, scribbled outlines, read the primary sources, combed through my notes, looked over the prompt — nothing was helping. I still had until Thursday to turn in my essay; I was just working through my thoughts; I should just start and revise later ... None of my internal reasoning could get rid of the rising knot of panic that was beginning to form in my chest.
I began to doubt my abilities as well as my place on Princeton’s campus. Maybe I’m not good enough; I probably don’t belong here; why am I the only one struggling? All the thoughts they tell you not to have, all the unproductive fixations — I had them all. Because when you are in the moment, you can’t rationalize away your feeling of panic. You can’t step objectively outside of the situation and realize the stress you are feeling is bigger than the assignment in front of you.
This is not to say there aren’t resources for help on campus. It is just that when paralyzed by stress I couldn’t think about anything but the problem at hand: the intense need and inability to finish my paper.
I don’t think my experience was unique. In fact, at the risk of generalization, I think it is singularly common. But it is a problem about which I hear little except during the speeches at the beginning of the year. I know I personally didn’t share the full extent of what was going on with anyone. To be overwhelmed by work is mundane, even expected. To say more than a fleeting “I’ve got tons of work” seemed to me at the time to be whiny. It wasn’t an external pressure that kept me from speaking up but an internal filter that kept me bottled up.
The breaking point came during Wednesday’s early-morning lift for crew. The looming paper coupled with worries about a recovering injury had me interpreting every normal lactic-acid buildup as some indication of failure. It was when I was doing a set of step-ups as I blinked back tears that I finally understood this was more than just the ever-present stress of work.
The op-ed you are reading is what finally wrenched me out of my self-defeating pattern. For me, the only way I knew to crack into what was really bothering me was to sit down and journal it out. To write, the exact process that was so frustrating me, was the relief. Wednesday morning after the lift, with four-and-a-half pages written but only one page that I liked, I turned for a moment from the matter at hand and tried to come to terms with what I was feeling. It is not exactly what you have before you but the product of a much less structured mind. In any case, it lifted my paralysis. By Wednesday at 11 p.m. I was starting my works cited with only a few more edits to make.
The thing about stress is that it isn’t a problem until it is. And when it is, it’s hard to remove yourself from the stress in order to find a solution.
And the thing about stress is that it is a problem until it isn’t. And when it isn’t, it is easy to forget there was a problem at all.
Rebecca Kreutter is a sophomore from Singapore. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.