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February 25, 2016

Take Care

Courtesy of Anne Wang

It's eighth week. This means that at any time of the night, students are on the first floor of the Reg or splayed over the couches in Harper solving econ p-sets, typing Sosc papers, and cramming for that test you know no number of hours of studying for could guarantee an A. Sometimes it seems like the one thing that we can count on more than the unrelenting weather patterns of Chicago winters is the unrelenting capacity of UChicago students to labor for hours on end, often at the expense of sleep. I'm there too, punctuating the long hours with coffee breaks and laments to friends.

It can seem like a competition to see who can stay up longer to study. One's ability to deny basic needs like sleep seems to be a badge of honor that shows we have earned the right to be here, that we are true UChicago students. One's talk of working grueling hours in the library is met with approving camaraderie and sympathetic laughter, while taking a break or decreasing your course load seems to be associated with weakness.

I'm a natural workaholic, and I tend to pile on more commitments than I can handle. Whether it is getting involved in another activity or perfecting assignments, I always feel like I could be doing more to be a better student and maximize the resources available through this University. Recently, however, I've come to wonder if self-denial and spending all these hours in the library are always laudable virtues. Is it really more responsible to finish that reading, even if it's way past normal waking hours? Is it really crucial to ace that test, even if it means significant stress and anxiety?

Jeffrey E. Barnett of the American Psychological Association states that self-care—acts that prioritize a healthy mind, body and soul—is an ethical imperative. Self-care is a good thing, and people ought to factor it in when planning their schedules. This does not seem to match popular attitudes at UChicago, where self-care does not seem to be a part of the student body’s vocabulary. Many students feel depressed and overworked, and sometimes feel as if there is no other choice than to continue pushing themselves past their limits. Intentionally making time for exercise, sleep, and play, or taking on an easier workload does not seem to be a popular habit.

On January 27, 2015, Yale University student Luchang Wang booked a one-way flight to San Francisco and jumped off the Golden Gate Bridge. She left a Facebook post saying that she needed time off to heal from deep emotional pain, but was afraid to do so in case she would not be allowed back to school.

This story is saddening but not very shocking. Given the number of students who suffer from depression, seasonal affective disorder, or anxiety, there seems to be a prevailing culture of stress in which students here are pressured until they feel they have no way out. It makes me question the mindset of idolizing self-denial and overworking yourself at the expense of your physical and psychological well-being.

Barnett recommends that people make adequate time for themselves, do things they enjoy, and take care of themselves physically as well as spiritually. He emphasizes the importance of saying no, not isolating oneself, and keeping in mind the fact that self-care is a positive thing. This includes intentionally making time for a hobby you enjoy, spending time with friends or loved ones, and/or exercising regularly and maintaining a healthy diet.

He makes a powerful point. If we want to improve our psychological and emotional health, we could perhaps benefit from changing our mindsets and relationships to our work. Taking breaks and letting our minds rest could be an effective strategy for achieving our goals in the long run, because stress or lack of sleep can hinder productivity. Maybe the next time a friend bemoans having to pull an all-nighter for a class, we can think about how our response may perpetuate a culture that idolizes self-destructive behavior. Perhaps rather than laughing or saying that we understand their struggle, we can gently encourage them to take a break. Or, if it’s you who’s putting in late-night hours at the Reg, maybe go home for sleep rather than Ex Libris for coffee. You deserve it. You matter, and your health matters.

Jane Jun is a third-year in the college majoring in economics.

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