We all know that feeling.
Walking to your locker, you pry your hundred tonne eyelids open after a sleepless night of cramming. This is not uncommon. It seems like most days, you wake up looking forward to the next time you can go back to bed. It has been especially hard this year; your course load is heavy and it is becoming increasingly difficult to stay on top of school and your numerous extracurriculars. Stress accumulates, but you endure it. This is a tiring lifestyle. Your friends come over and then it all begins:
“I stayed up to 3am for Physics!”, you say.
“Dude, I stayed up till 4.”
“I have 2 tests and a project due today, don’t even talk to me.”
“I got home at 11pm after volleyball, guys.”
“I am so busy this week, I’m gonna die.”
Everyone chips in with their own tragedies, trying to best everyone else at this absurd game. Someone is always working harder and pushing themselves further. Someone is always suffering more than you.
Today’s youth possesses a toxic infatuation with overexertion. The crisis has escalated to a point where we routinely engage in a competition to see who is the most stressed out. There are numerous categories we have crafted for ourselves: who stayed up later, who is more sleep-deprived, who has more to stress about, and the list goes on. We are driven to study later, add more to our to-do lists and push our minds and bodies to their furthest extent because we have been lured into these troubling competitions. Instead of avoiding overexertion, we are encouraging it. It’s a terrible, destructive mindset.
We need to stop romanticizing stress. We need to stop competing for it.
Why do we view stress as something commendable? We applaud people who let their mental and physical conditions deteriorate as they pursue our society’s narrow perception of success. Being stressed out, exhausted and sad seems to be the default mode for today’s youth. Why are we are glorifying something that is so damaging to us?
Many people equate hard work to success. Although this is what we have been taught from a young age, it is not necessarily true. We naturally assume that if we work hard and put in the hours, we will achieve success and consequently, happiness. As a result, we continue to pull all-nighters and inhale caffeine, hoping that all the stress and suffering will pay off at some point. Life, however, does not always operate how we want it to. Sometimes, we pour our hearts into something and achieve nothing. Life is a nonlinear system and what we put in is not always equal to what comes out. Yet, we are fixated on this idealistic notion that if we work hard, someway, somehow, our dreams will be realized.
Good work ethic is an indispensable element to success, however, we often forget that it is not the only factor. Hard work will not always give us the results we want. This is, by no means, a denouncement of determination, will and effort. But maybe next time we consider downing another energy drink for a sleepless cram session, we should instead ask ourselves if this is the right path to take. Results do matter, but the journey is just as important as the destination. We might burn out before we even arrive.
Yet, one of the most potent reasons we continue to glorify stress is, of course, its status. Being busy and stressed seems to be synonymous to being productive and successful in this day and age. We look up to those whose agendas are filled with ink. We commend exhaustion. We have always admired people who work hard and succeed. It shows us that we can attain our goals if we put in enough effort. But now, our admiration has gone far too extreme. Our obsession with being busy and occupied has created a culture where our mental, physical and spiritual health come second to work. We hold pedestals for the stress and the overworked because in our eyes, they are hardworking and committed people. We compete to see who is working harder and suffering more (because somehow we believe those two activities are the same).
Stress has become some sort of success indicator; overexertion and exhaustion are statuses that we strive after. We boast about how busy we are. We feel stressed and tired all the time – it’s nothing new. This absurd obsession with stress has normalized overexertion amongst youth, which only pushes people to work harder and push this dangerous competition to its extremes.
I recall a vivid moment of my earlier high school days when I was flipping through my agenda during a late night musical tech rehearsal. Tech and dress rehearsals are taxing for everyone – the erratic schedules in combination with having to stay at school until 10pm makes it difficult to finish any amount of schoolwork. The conversation that ensued between myself and my fellow lighting crew members proceed as follows:
Me: Do you think we’ll be off early tonight?
Crew head: Don’t think so. Why?
Me: Just wondering. I gotta work on a project at home.
Crew head: Don’t even talk to me. I have a Chem test tomorrow and an in-class write for English.
Crew member: I literally have an essay due tomorrow and I can’t get wi-fi here.
Me: Oh, that sucks.
Crew head: You shouldn’t be that stressed out. You’re not even in grade 12 yet. I should be stressed out.
Crew member: (looking at my agenda) Dude, that’s definitely manageable.
Crew head: It’s tech week. Everyone’s here late. It sucks. But you don’t have it that bad. A lot of people have it worse.
The idea that you have to justify your stress, or reach some sort of quota before you are officially recognized as “stressed out” was absurd to me. Everyone deals with things differently, and that is why it is so toxic to compete in this. Comparing yourself to others is already a damaging habit, but when overexertion is the topic at hand, the effects can be disastrous.
There is no simple solution to this issue. We were born into this culture and we have grown up in it. It is deeply rooted into our consciousness, but we can still counteract it. We need to stop competing for stress and glorifying overexertion. We need to stop admiring exhaustion, but instead, aspire to be a person that treats their bodies and minds well. Someone who knows when to take a break, take a step back, and take a little off their plate.
“Too many people are burning out before they truly have a chance to shine.”