It’s 6 a.m. and the sun is slowly rising over Leavey Library. After an all-nighter sipping on coffee, fidgeting students sit quietly in cubicles, staring at computer screens and dozing off, all facing the same scenario — stressing to pump out a paper, project or cramming anxiously to get an A.
“You bring it on yourself, but it’s not really your fault because there is so much going on, and you feel like… you want to do everything at the same time,” said Sali Kharaza, a sophomore majoring in public relations.
There is no doubt USC students deal with stress on a day-to-day basis. With papers, exams, internships, jobs, extracurricular activities, financial responsibilities, social and family life — or even just short-term issues like getting stuck in a long line at Trojan Grounds and running late to class — a student’s life without a little adrenaline flowing through the body and too many thoughts crowding the mind seems almost obsolete.
“There is a line between working hard and having superhuman strength,” said Stephanie Graves, a senior and progressive degree student majoring in communication. “In the real world there’s some sort of demarcation between your work and the rest of your life and at school there isn’t … Everything revolves around your university life.”
Within the realm of USC university life, 41 percent of undergraduate students and 44 percent of graduate students said they experience more than average stress; 36 percent of undergraduates and 32 percent of graduate students say they experience average stress, according to the 2009 National College Health Assessment Report.
And not only do USC students experience stress, but they also said it is one of the leading and most frequent threats to academic success, along with having a learning disability, depression or developing a cold or the flu.
Yet the prevalence of stress on campus often creates a confusing dilemma for students. The psychological and medical communities emphasize its health effects, but sometimes students can be caught between what’s good for them in the long run or at a specific moment.
“Most of our students are sleep deprived — I mean it’s just the name of the game,” said Ilene Rosenstein, director of USC counseling services. “When you’re tired, exercise sometimes feels like the exact opposite than what you want to do …you might want to use the extra half an hour to sleep.”
Short-term effects of stress, Rosenstein explained, tamper with a student’s decision-making ability, judgment, concentration, attention and memory and can create irregular and unhealthy sleeping patterns.
One long-term effect of stress is a weakened immune system. And some students might develop unhealthy habits like turning to food when they’re stressed out, while others turn away from food. Other students can also be prone to getting in a car or bicycle accident.
“Alcohol and drugs are used as a way to relieve stress, and even sex, in terms of hooking up and those kind of things as these releases…really get people in trouble,” said Rosenstein.
Dr. Lawrence Neinstein, director of the USC University Park Health Center, said 20-29 year olds are especially prone to experiencing these short and long-term effects. The group has the highest rate of serious mental health issues, like stress that can eventually snowball into depression and anxiety for some.
The impact of long-term stress is more severe than acute stress on the brain — biologically and chemically. It alters brain chemistry, rewiring the brain’s connections and ultimately also affecting a person’s genetic make-up over a long period of time, according to Jean Chen Smith, USC professor of neurobiology who has studied the effects of stress on brain chemistry.
But the students who are most at risk are those who deal with day-to-day hassles. Acute stress is harder for people to deal with than chronic stress, such as the stress that can ensue from the loss of a loved one, long-term family problems or moving, Rosenstein explained.
“Who wants to hear it? You get no sympathy, no empathy for this. [You get] no attention, and you don’t give it to yourself either,” she said.
Some students might have an even harder time speaking out because they are under hovering “helicopter” parents, Neinstein said.
“When you have parents at the level of an undergraduate or even a graduate student intervening for a student on everything from grades to interviews on a daily basis, what you have is an individual who is really not learning how to manage problems on their own,” he said.
This can lead to anxiety for many students, according to a medical study focused on parenting issues because students who were allowed to make decisions and face consequences on their own were less likely to have anxiety.
Amanda Christensen, a junior majoring in linguistics who decided to take a semester off to relax and figure out what she wanted to major in, said it’s really about how supportive family is of a decision like hers.
“I guess everyone does have their different pressures. You’re [at USC] to find out what you want to do, but it’s nice to have friends, family, and counselors you can always talk to,” she said.
But not every stressed USC student uses counseling services, and some believe the stigma and social connotation of the word “counseling” will ward off even the most stressed of the USC population.
“The word [counselor] alone is not very inviting at all,” said Slag.
But Rosenstein said the stigma of the term is rapidly changing.
“Your generation is so used to getting help. If you didn’t get an SAT score high enough, you go to class. People are used to trying to do their best … so it makes sense that people also want to get their stress to a healthy level,” said Rosenstein.
If counseling doesn’t seem like an option for some minutely stressed students, USC offers other ways to deal with stress, such as a meditation group and a two-unit stress management course that teaches students mental and physical ways to deal with stress.
The class, according to USC physical education Professor Danielle Roman, attracts students from an array of majors and class standings and teaches them how to look at stress not as a threat but as a challenge and motivating factor.
Roman said some students may not take anything away from the class because they are not open to trying these techniques and have a hard time changing their habits. But other students, like Darci Kimble-Manalo, a senior majoring in kinesiology, and Marie Agnello, a junior majoring in broadcast journalism, think the class has helped them make a change in their lives.
Kimble-Manalo, who said she is usually stressed because of long lab hours on top of lecture hours in the kinesiology department, has been thinking about stress at USC as well as ways the university could help stressed students on campus.
“My idea was to have, like, a building on campus where there would be individual rooms and students can go there and take naps. You can design the room in terms of music, smells, temperature,” Kimble-Manalo said.
Mary-Helen Immordino-Yang, assistant USC professor and expert in the neuroscience of learning, including student anxiety, said USC should design healthy learning environments that support “intrinsic” motivation rather than anxiety, because the mind and biology are intertwined. Thoughts and interpretations about school work are going to affect the way a person biologically reacts to stress, she said.
“Some people do their school work because they are intrinsically interested in it and are motivated to learn it,” Yang said.
“Others [do it] because they focus on extrinsic motivation because their parents are going to be mad at them because they spend a lot of tuition,” she said. “Both sources of motivation will motivate you, but intrinsic motivation results in much meaningful learning that is built into the knowledge that you are learning instead of pleasing someone else.”
Students said they find the reading assignments, papers and tests in general education classes tedious. The courses can be stressful, they said, because it’s hard to become interested in a required class that might not be relevant to their major or interests.
“This isn’t just coming to school doing what I want to learn because if that’d be the case I’d only be taking theatre and psychology classes,” Slag said. “I wouldn’t be forced to take all these ‘GE’s’.”
Although parents can have high expectations for students to perform well, Graves said there is more to understand about the university lifestyle.
“Everybody is busy here, but some people can handle amounts of stress more than others,” Graves said. “If someone doesn’t join an organization because they don’t have time, and you feel like you’ve got more on your plate, you’ve got to understand you can’t judge them for that because they might not be able to handle stress a lot.”
As for major classes, students may begin to feel stressed because the courses and majors can be “cutthroat.”
“You’re like, ‘Wait, this is really competitive,’ and that freaks you out because you think, ‘Am I going to succeed?’ Everyone here is on my level,” said Kharaza.
But Graves disagreed.
“[School] is competitive, but I don’t feel like in a bad way sometimes because you still have that sense that this is the Trojan Family, and it just pushes you to be better,” she said.
Graves, who is a squad leader in the Trojan Marching Band, a sorority member, co-director of a ballet dance company, working an internship, and a member of a concert band and orchestra, said it’s a learning process for students to figure out just how much they can handle without being stressed.
“I know I can’t do everything, “ Graves said. “I get to the point where I have a good idea of I need to be involved in.”
Because our Western model of education involves independent work with deadlines and enforces extracurricular activities, Yang said the system is inherently stressful. Other students said life is just stressful from college onward and right now is the best time for a student to use the resources USC provides so it will be easier for them after graduation.
In the end, the question may not be what else USC can do to help students, but how students can come to terms with their daily lives —whether it’s counseling, or just a 20-minute jog every day.
“College is stressful, but so is life,” Neinstein said. “So the answer is, do you know how to cope and deal with it?”