Stress and sleep deprivation are not personality traits

How much sleep did you get last night? How much coffee did you drink this morning?  When stress is a culture, cups of coffee and hours of sleep — or lack thereof — are a commodity.

Among the faux-Gothic red bricks of USC, eye bags replace Birkin bags, and students wear their stress like a Gucci belt: proudly and performatively. When stress is more than a feeling, more than a momentary aberration, but rather a lifestyle — a culture even — then we can ascertain meaning from it, develop a sense of self based off of it.

Certainly, you’d be remiss to find a college student who isn’t stressed out. School, work, social obligations, the demands of a still-forming prefrontal cortex and an uncertain future all come together during the college years to create a person invariably on the verge of frantic implosion.

Yet at schools like USC, this natural stress reconstitutes itself from something to avoid into something to aspire to. An all-nighter and copious espresso shots are, in fact, tangible examples of one’s dedication.

Quickly, this fuels a secondary culture of one-upmanship. Oh, you got three hours of sleep? Well, I got two. You’re taking five classes? I’m taking eight. It’s the suffering Olympics, and the first one to collapse wins.

Why would any sane being aspire to sleep deprivation and espresso-induced tachycardia? I’ll assume no one actually enjoys fatigue and heart palpitations, but sometimes the Herculean requirements of college — and life in general — necessitate all-nighters and Starbucks ventis.

It’s within these bleary-eyed, post-midterm Wednesdays that we must search for meaning. No one actually enjoys feeling like a bag of bones about to crumble outside of Taper Hall, but if we can assign purpose to this egregious state of exhaustion, then maybe all of that suffering is worth it.

By defining my negligible hours of sleep and concerningly frequent trips to Starbucks as evidence of my hard work and my ambition, I begin to construct an identity. I wear my eye bags like a badge of honor. I prescribe hierarchy to the world around me. That girl next to me in lecture who looks perfectly well-rested and doesn’t flash coffee-stained teeth when she smiles? She must not care as much as I do; she must not be as hardworking as me.

It’s perhaps human nature to construct our identities around the circumstances presented to us. If I’m going to look like a tired rat in my 8 a.m. lecture, I might as well feel like my tiredness projects some positive aspect of my personality. These eye bags are a statement piece of my work ethic. 

However, basing your identity around one thing is a treacherous path. I can’t hide behind these eye bags forever. Eventually, I’ll need a nap, and when I wake up, I have to figure out how to form a sense of self that doesn’t depend on burnout. 

When exhaustion is an aspiration, we forget that it’s actually quite bad for us. As good as it might feel to momentarily win the sleep-deprivation Olympics, a lack of sleep and too much stress create compounding health issues.

In the moment, sleep deprivation causes difficulty concentrating, difficulty making decisions, emotional downturns and increased risk of accident and injury. When a pattern of sleep deprivation continues, it can invite serious medical conditions including heart disease, high blood pressure and diabetes.

Similarly, accumulated stress can do any and all of the following: make it difficult to control emotions, promote various diseases, affect your love life, hurt your heart, cause weight gain, contribute to premature aging — ask any U.S. president — and weaken your immune system.

Stress is unavoidable. Sleep is hard to come by. This is true in college, and this will be true throughout the rest of our lives. But rather than incentivizing one another to sleep less and do more, we should actively work to establish positive, maintainable habits that will set us up for success in the future: Sleep deprivation and caffeine addiction need not apply.

USC students be warned: Stress is a false god. Do not worship at its altar.

Ellen Murray is a senior writing about being a millennial. Her column, “’90s Kid Unleashed,” runs every other Monday.