Caracotsios: Take time to slow down from Northwestern’s relentless ‘stress culture’

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Julian Caracotsios, Columnist

Dealing with stress is as an unavoidable part of life, and something we need to learn to do. Dmitri Teplov’s suicide has made the conversation about mental health, stress and the Northwestern community all the more pressing. I cannot know exactly what went through Teplov’s mind when he ended his life, but his tragedy called mental health to the forefront of my mind, and I realized something important.

Though we talk about the inevitable fact that we must cope with stress, the average student’s conception of what amount of stress is “inevitable” is distorted beyond reason. Despite the numerous workshops, initiatives and campus-wide discussions about dealing with stress, what we have in actuality is a “stress culture,” which exacerbates the problem.

Think about what we hear on a regular basis. “I was up until 4 a.m. studying for a midterm because I had so much other homework that I couldn’t do because I was busy with my (insert club, research project and/or alcohol here).” When was the last time somebody said, “Well, I did the homework at a reasonable pace through the course, studied for a few hours, then got up in the morning and made a healthy breakfast after a full night’s sleep?” Even if you did do that, you don’t say it, because we all know everybody’s competing for the best I-pulled-off-a-ridiculous-cram-sesh-at-the-last-possible-minute-and-still-got-an-A-#yolo story so they can sound cool (and yours truly is no exception).

The fact that being sleep-deprived is considered “cool” should make us reconsider what we’re doing with ourselves. Maybe the fact that you’re chewing your fingernails at an ungodly hour cramming for organic chemistry so you can get a GPA high enough to get into med school doesn’t mean that you need to build up the Olympian willpower required to make it through. Maybe it means that med school, or research, or banking or whatever you have in mind isn’t worth it.

I do not criticize as an outsider. By this time last year, I was disheartened, depressed and absolutely miserable. I slogged onward, draining my last reserves just to get to the end of the year. But then, halfway through my very last final exam, something amazing happened. I was done. I got up, turned the exam in half blank, walked out, and got my first C. I had gotten straight A’s from eighth grade up until Spring Quarter last year – making it through all of organic chemistry, differential equations, quantum mechanics, the list goes on – but of all my academic achievements, that C is the one I am most proud of. After that, I quit my internship in a research lab, went home and rethought my life. I have never been happier.

If I ran into the freshman version of myself, he would have — as some of you undoubtedly are doing as you read this — clasped his ears in agony as he listened to this unthinkable blasphemy. But this is what stress culture is. We deprive ourselves of sleep, we lose contact with old friends, we fulfill never-ending “have-tos” and neglect our “want-tos” – and to question all of this is heresy. We may talk about dealing with stress, but in reality, all we’re really talking about is dealing with its superficial effects. Dealing with stress requires you to dare to step out of line, to dare to just stop, and above all else, to dare to question everything you have been taught about what “success” is.

We’ve been raised to be go-getters, to strive for high-powered careers, to excel academically, to be involved as widely as possible, and to never turn down a step “upward” in life. This certainly did bring us to the top echelon of universities — we have kept our foot on the accelerator and have traveled far — but we are approaching a time that if we don’t slow down and take a break, what we have left behind will have receded into the distance and what we have passed by will be nothing but a blur. And years on the infinite interstate of stress will have worn us down. For many of us, it’s already starting to.

In the wise words of the twentieth-century suburban philosopher Ferris Bueller, “Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look once in a while, you could miss it.”

Julian Caracotsios is a Weinberg junior. He can be reached at [email protected]. If you want to respond publicly to this column, send a Letter to the Editor to [email protected].