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I’m stressed out: Reframing the narrative

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NOVEMBER 27, 2022

Dead week — one of the most significant weeks of every academic semester, when no classes are held and students are given time to prepare solely for their final exams. Though dead week is aimed to be helpful, the one word that is so frequently used to describe it among students is “stressful.”

Too often, as college students, we find ourselves saying “I’m so stressed out.” Time after time, we refer to stress as impending tasks to be done, difficult assignments, or exams worth half of our grade. Here at UC Berkeley, we are no strangers to the feeling. In fact, being stressed is so common in the university that weekly emails are sent from Berkeley Student Well-Being to encourage healthy habits. “I am stressed” has even become a response to the simple, everyday question: “How is your day going?”

But what is stress, exactly? According to the World Health Organization, stress is defined as “any type of change that causes physical, emotional or psychological strain” and with that, “stress is your body’s response to anything that requires attention or action.”

It might be easier to visualize stress through an academic analogy: Let’s imagine a student preparing for a final. They have to prepare for the various topics on an exam, and focusing on one topic alone will not suffice. Stress is similar as there can be different types —  both good and bad. But when we think of stress, we often only think of the bad. We see it as something to get rid of, and the inability to get rid of it as a failure, a sign that we are doing something wrong, that we simply aren’t good enough. 

The student preparing for the final might go through a cycle of feeling frustrated. Whether it’s because they can’t grasp the concept being reviewed or they can’t even find the energy to keep going. The ongoing pressure to perform well impacts the student’s ability to prepare. However, what we don’t realize is that we use stress synonymously with the way we feel about different deadlines that we come upon. These terms are beginning to be used interchangeably with one another. With this common verbiage, we’ve allowed ourselves to define it as anything that doesn’t go our way. For instance, the simple deadline of driving your sibling to school so they get there on time can be stressful, or, say, you have to complete a series of tasks promptly to get that promotion at your job that’s bringing you stress. Over time, stress has been interpreted as a concept rather than just a bodily or psychological response, and with that, we have unknowingly let it become a permanent fixture in our lives. 

With this common verbiage, we’ve allowed ourselves to define stress as anything that doesn’t go our way.

In 2017, SAAS Berkeley surveyed undergraduate UC Berkeley students asking about their stress level, and reported that “among those who are not comfortable with their current stress level, 64.5% feel extremely dissatisfied or dissatisfied with their academic work.” Although these are pre-pandemic results that overlook the many changes that have occurred since then, if anything, they draw a connection between stress and academic deadlines; for college students, this connection is, more often than not, tied to their academic performance.

So how can the frustrated student find a way to keep reviewing? Taking breaks when needed, rather than forcing yourself to keep going, is key. Let’s go back to the definition of stress by the World Health Organization: “Stress is your body’s response to anything that requires attention or action.” This mere definition implies that stress is a permanent part of human life. There will always be something that requires our attention or action. It’s like learning — we are never quite done learning because there’s always something else waiting to be discovered and learned. 

Once the student gets stuck reviewing for their final, the next possible course of action is to either give up and take the final unprepared or do something about it. Why not do the same for stress? If we can only change the way we think about stress, we can also redefine it, re-assigning its role in our lives. 

The power to redefine stress is in your hands. Rather than associating stress with hard deadlines, it can serve as a kind reminder — a reminder that you have a week filled with goals to achieve. Instead of the student just going over the same concept 20 times for eight hours straight, change the subject, or perhaps use an anecdote to break down the concepts in a more digestible way. Changes either big or small in our habits make a big difference and help to reassociate what stress means in our lives. 

The power to redefine stress is in your hands. Rather than associating stress with hard deadlines, it can serve as a kind reminder — a reminder that you have a week filled with goals to achieve.

Even better, use stress to your advantage. If you love to work under pressure, then stress is actually your best friend. Martin Turner, a lecturer at Staffordshire University, explains that the ability to work under pressure is more about an individual’s “mental game.” When it’s time to take a final, we’re put in a high-stress environment where our response is indicative of how well we will perform on the exam. 

However, it’s important to note that this isn’t to say that being stressed out is always a good thing. Especially, not at high levels of it, but rather, stress can be beneficial in small amounts. At a school such as UC Berkeley, it is incredibly easy to reach these unhealthy levels of stress due to the competitive academic nature; it can be more than overwhelming.

It’s crucial to recognize harmful levels of stress because it not only affects our mindsets and the way we approach academic deadlines, but it can also have serious physical effects on our bodies. According to The Mayo Clinic, “stress that’s left unchecked can contribute to many health problems, such as high blood pressure, heart disease, obesity and diabetes.” It is imperative to remember that stress is more than this interpretation of future deadlines; it can be detrimental from a health perspective.

So, where do we go from here? Take back the power that stress holds over us. Don’t pull an all-nighter’ instead, get some rest and trust in your abilities to perform well. The potential to recognize that we’ll technically never be “stress” free is one of the first steps in the right direction. There are no limitations to how many deadlines there are in our lives.

A little stress is healthy for us, but only if we allow ourselves to see stress as more than just a nuisance in our lives. Take the time to reevaluate what stress means to you and how it can take on a healthier role in your life. Let’s use our stress as a tool and a reminder to put ourselves first. Try to see the good in stress, just as we synthesize all units in a class for one exam,  focusing on stress as only a bad thing simply won’t be enough or make it disappear from our lives. Take initiative and reclaim what it means to be stressed. Now it seems like we’re ready to take this final.

Contact Megan Le at 


NOVEMBER 27, 2022