Stress can save your life. That rapid heartbeat, quick breathing, and tensing up of your muscles are all adaptive responses to threat, enabling you to outrun a charging bear or giving you the super-strength to save someone being crushed underneath a car or come up with a quick response when you are asked a question in class and haven’t done the reading. It allows you to choose “fight or flight,” to survive long enough to get to a safe place and recover. People perform best when they are operating at a moderate level of stress, which is pretty obvious if you think about what happens when you try to write an essay a month before its due compared to a few days before its due. Basically, if we didn’t feel stress in response to stress threats, we would probably die or at least fail out of school.
But these responses are optimized to help us deal with acute stress. What happens when your body is constantly being flooded with cortisol and other stress hormones, constantly gearing up to fight or flight? This is the state Cornell students tend to live in, jumping from prelim to prelim, balancing extracurricular obligations, jobs, internship applications, etc. It can wreak havoc on your body, destroy your immune system, and lead to burnout, damaging your long-term performance. There are a lot of reasons why burnout is a problem here: 100% of people here expect to be above average and it can feel ultra-competitive, there is a huge amount of pressure to take on many, many, responsibilities and to succeed at all of them, and all of the effort you put in can feel disconnected from your long-term goals. As soon as you finish one thing, it is time to start worrying about the next thing, and there is no time to reflect or decompress. It often feels like if you aren’t in a constant state of anxiety, you are doing something wrong.
It is hard to avoid burnout, since immediate demands are often prioritized over long-term health concerns. But one thing to remember as finals are approaching is that you are not choosing between your work and your health: by choosing to put your health first, you are also choosing to boost your performance. You might be able to subsist for a few days on four hours of sleep, exclusively eating junk food, and going full days without setting foot outside, but by next week you will be exhausted, you will probably get sick, and you will definitely not do well on those finals. Make time in your day to decompress, whatever that means for you, whether it is hot yoga and meditation, a nap, a relaxing dinner with friends. It’s a marathon, not a sprint, and as a college student, you have too much work ahead to burnout this early. Making time for yourself is a necessity, not a luxury.