Updated: Aug 26
Julia Schetelig is a Psychology and Global Management student at Earlham College. She is the founder of Generation Impact, a resource-platform to empower young people to make a difference. On her website: www.generimpact.com, she lists more than 200 resources that can help you make an impact in your community and around the world. Julia has worked for Amala, designing a peace-building syllabus for refugees, and as a research assistant at the Peace and Conflict Neuroscience Lab at the University of Pennsylvania. Currently, she is working at the United World College of South East Asia in Singapore, the boarding school she graduated from.
If you are like me, the few days before the start of the semester sometimes feel more stressful than the semester itself. I call it “stressing about the potential of being stressed in the future” - and if you too are currently haunted by nightmares about sitting in a lecture hall completely unprepared: welcome to the “stressing about stress” club.
Where does this anxiety come from?
Stress is currently the buzzword in our society. Publications are full of articles about “How to manage your stress” and “Foods to eat to reduce your stress and anxiety” - suggesting that our culture has become more aware of mental health. Stress is often framed as something that we should avoid or reduce in our lives, yet, simultaneously, “being stressed” is also expected. If you are not stressed, then you are obviously not working hard enough and you are lazy!
So really, the new expectation is to still give 150% at work and school - and to also spend 2 hours meditating on the patio every day, because, as we all know, stress is bad for you. This is why we are now not only stressed because we have so much on our plate, but we are also stressed about being stressed. Aahhhh.
Framing it psychologically: Musturbation
I would like to introduce you to a wonderful psychological theory referred to as “musturbation”. (Yes, you did read that correctly and I am glad that I have your attention now). The central element in this theory, originally developed by Dr. Albert Ellis, is that many humans cling to “musts and mustn’ts” and “shoulds and shouldn’ts” - states or outcomes that we believe are absolutely necessary. Why are they necessary? Because we have been taught to believe that if we a) perform poorly in school b) do not get the promotion c) do not have the perfect body and d) are not happy all the time, people will love us less and that our lives are less meaningful.
Dr. Ellis does not propose to get rid of these beliefs - after all, it is better if you perform well at school, get the promotion, and are happy. People often get confused when psychologists try to teach about acceptance, because they think that we are arguing that all these things do not matter, while they, of course, do. The only thing that we psychologists encourage people to do, is to reframe their thinking.
Instead of: “I must get an A on this exam, otherwise, I (insert your fear) …” try to think: “It would be nice if I got an A on this exam. But if I do not, it is not the end of the world”. You can consider this a mantra.
Now, as simple and banal it sounds - this is a hard concept to internalize, and it takes a lot of discipline and self-love to allow yourself to acknowledge that what you consider to be a massive failure is probably just a bump in the road.
You can apply the musturbation concept to all kinds of things: even stress itself! Instead of thinking: “Oh my goodness, I am so stressed, which is bad for me. How do I get rid of it?”, try to think: “Ok, I am noticing that I am getting a bit stressed… Alright, I guess I am a bit nervous for the beginning of school - this is natural”. This way, you do not have to stress about being stressed!
I strongly encourage you to try this out the next time that you feel a “bad” emotion. Tell yourself that it is okay to feel that way, and you may immediately notice a weight lifted off your chest.
Two-Factor Theory: We perceive what we think we should perceive
Here is one of my favourite psychological experiments by Dutton and Aron (1974): A group of heterosexual men go on a hike with an attractive female researcher. Throughout the hike, the female researcher approaches each of these men, makes friendly conversation, and then gives them her phone number. Now, the key to this study is that the attractive female researcher approached half of the men while they were on a swaying wooden bridge, hundreds of meters above the water. This was a bridge that even if you are not afraid of heights, it would definitely get your heart pumping. The rest of the men were approached while the group was walking on a typical path on the ground. Later, the research team behind this project recorded which of these men called the female researcher to ask for a date - and which did not.
The interesting finding was that the men who were approached by the attractive researcher on the scary bridge were significantly more likely to ask her out on a date than the men who were approached on the typical path.
Dr. Le Doux’s Two-Factor Theory argues that we look at our environment to help us label the emotions that we feel. Think about this: love, hate, frustration, and fear - all of these emotions actually have the exact same physiological responses: your heart beats rapidly, your palms may be sweaty, and your digestive system slows down amongst other physiological responses. Of course, love feels very different from fear. But why? According to Dr. Le Doux, this difference occurs because we look at our environment.
“Oh, my heart is beating so fast when Jill is standing close to me, I must be in love with her”.
“Wow, my heart is beating really hard and there is a bear that is about to kill me, I am probably afraid”.
Of course, you do not actually think any of this, it happens subconsciously in a matter of milliseconds. None of the men approached on the swaying bridge thought that the fact that they were on a bridge influenced their feelings for the female researcher - they just thought that it was because she was attractive.
Now, what does all of that have to do with stress?
There is a wonderful TED talk by Dr. Kelly McGonigal “How to make stress your friend”, where she explains that when people reframe their signs of stress as signs of excitement, the negative health effects that we usually recognize when someone is stressed disappear.
To synthesize this with the Two-Factor Theory: you look at your environment and society to label your emotions. When all of your friends are talking about how stressed they are, then whatever you must be feeling must be stress too, right?
Well, I encourage you to think twice!
A second mantra to take into the new school year is:
“I am not stressed, I am just excited and my body is energizing me to be ready”.
On a more personal note, I am the master of stressing about being stressed and I completely understand if your initial reaction is “those theories seem to have a lot of flaws - does this really apply to me?” Well, yes and no. Of course, these theories are flawed and they do not explain everything about stress and emotions. Nonetheless, they serve as two strong science-supported tools to help you take care of your brain during this upcoming semester.
On that note, let me end with my top five science and logic-supported tools to help you take care of your mental health:
It is okay and necessary to say no to things! (You can always scale up your involvement in extracurricular activities, but perhaps start by only committing to as much as you know you can handle.)
When you feel overwhelmed and stressed, do not push through, take a break!
Sleep. Sleep. Sleep. (Actually, this is strongly science-supported!)
Be kind to yourself (I know that this has become a platitude, but I really mean it. If you start to truly be kind to yourself, you will see massive changes and growth in your life.)
Rely on your support network. (We often think that we are the only ones feeling a certain way or struggling with a certain thing, but, usually, we are not. Lean on others for support, which can also be a great way to create close emotional bonds.)
Dutton, D., & Aron, A. (1974). Some evidence for heightened sexual attraction under conditions of high anxiety. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 30, 510–517.