Under pressure


Oh, St. Andrews. We are back on your three streets; back to the books at the library, the balls and the dinner parties, the late nights at the Building Site Bar – and the stress. Returning from a long, relaxing holiday, we often forget the stress inherent in St Andrews – and, generally, university – life.

Over break, I had spoken to my grandmother about the overwhelming anxiety I felt about exams, and the perpetual stress of revision week. She looked at me and said, ‘I don’t know why you’re so stressed out, Samantha. In my day, we didn’t have stress, it was just called hard work’.

What she said struck me. She’s right – everything we do at university is really just hard work that we will inevitably get through. Nonetheless, despite this rationalization, today’s university students are under a worrying amount of pressure, be it self-imposed or externally implemented. My grandmother had attended Bristol University from 1954-58. In her day, no one was constantly ‘stressed out’ or ‘stressing’ about their assignments.

The term ‘stress’ was first used in the 1300’s, as a shortened version of the word ‘distress’, and meant “hardship, adversity, force, pressure”. It was partially influenced by the Old French estrece, Vulgar Latin strictia, and Latin strictus.  Until the mid fifteenth century, it only referred to a physical strain on a material object. In 1855, it became an abstract force in mechanics, and in 1896, the figurative meaning of stress, ‘to put emphasis on’ was first recorded. Russel Viner, a professor at University College London, states that ‘stress as an explanation of lived experience is absent from both lay and expert life narratives before the 1930’s’. It was instead used specifically to refer to the biological stress response.

The contemporary definition of ‘stress’ when applied to life events was first used in 1955. So, therefore, the contemporary concept of ‘stress’, as it pertains to looming assignments or societal over-commitment – did not exist while my grandmother attended university; stress referred to the stress response, which occurs during a life-threatening situation such as a physical assault or prolonged starvation that greatly disrupts homeostasis. I’m pretty sure that studying and writing an essay isn’t equivalent to physical assault (though many may claim it is ‘killing them’) – though apparently our minds perceive it as such. Some of the symptoms of stress – including constant worrying, moodiness, sense of loneliness and isolation, diarrhea, frequent colds, procrastination, and abuse of alcohol and drugs –  are also characteristics of student life, minus the diarrhea hopefully.

Stress has become a way of life. This kind of stress is not a response to a grave or hazardous situation, but is rather prompted by the everyday – the essay I have due, the party I have to organize, the vacation I must plan.

At University, stress is required for true dedication – if you’re not stressed, the implication is that you are simply not working hard enough. Sometimes I feel pressured to stress – I get stressed over stressing. The St Andrews library reeks of stress – but it is not host to truly “stressful” situations; there are no fight-or-flight scenarios, no survival threats. All people are doing is sitting, thinking, and typing – it’s no wonder my grandmother is perplexed. I just need to sit down, to think, and type. Our generation has created it’s own definition of stress, a more privileged, sensitive one, piqued by the smallest inconvenience. Our forefathers were ‘stressed’ at the prospect of no food, whereas we become anxious when given a month to write 2,000 words. It’s time to re-evaluate our first-world lives and realize that there is frankly very little to ‘stress’ about.


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