The Stress Factor

My to-do list is pretty standard Harvard fare, filled with your typical Harvard stressors: academics, extracurriculars, internships, and relationships (perhaps the latter is a distant fourth). Toss in constant elevated levels of pre-med stress and garnish it with just a bit of pressure to not let my aggressive tiger mother down, and there you have it: my edition of Harvard’s stress platter. Talk about fine dining.

At a cursory glance, stress seems like the villain of this campus. Students and administrators alike have chosen this conclusion and responded to it with intense criticisms. A combination of troubling research findings about the increasing prevalence of anxiety and depression, heartfelt personal narratives about Harvard’s inadequate mental health support, and increased student activism has led Harvard, as well as other universities, to hone in on our culture of stress as a pathology that hurts students.

Harvard has told advisors and mental health services providers to encourage students to drop extracurriculars and other commitments to try to lower their stress, and even to take time off — anything to try to alleviate the stress that students have put themselves under. Harvard has also formed a stress workgroup to make recommendations for ways to “make undergraduate life less stressful.” Students themselves have also led initiatives to target and try to mitigate stress, from the development of a serenity room in the Yard to students offering free back rubs at Lamont to peers to recent Undergraduate Council campaigns making mental health reform a central tenet of their platforms.

These initiatives all lash out at stress as something that has purely negative effects. However, to push the idea that stress is bad and that students should always be working to reduce it is wrong.

We spend so much time tearing down stress that we forget that it can have value. Stress isn’t always the negative, stomach-churning anxiety induced by procrastination. Science shows that moderate stress can actually be beneficial for cognitive function. The idea that moderate stress may have a positive effect has been demonstrated in both rats and humans. In fact, moderate stress may actually make the brain more “resilient” to damage. Since many Harvard students tend to be stressed, Type A “overachievers,” it’s no secret that stress can help us achieve, whether that achievement manifests as higher starting salaries right after graduation or a significant number of Nobel and Pulitzer Prizes.


And most of us can’t deny the role of stress in getting us to Harvard in the first place. I certainly recall a fair share of Friday and Saturday nights when I had to study for an upcoming standardized exam instead of going out with friends, or practice violin in preparation for submitting an arts supplement after I finished my homework at 3 a.m. —all instead of sleeping at a reasonable time.

So much due diligence went into preparing for an increasingly selective application process. Staying on top of grades, standardized tests, and many other facets of resume-building is not an easy feat for any teenager. But with the help of just the right amount of stress, the little voice in my head telling me “work harder, you can do it” ultimately yielded what I thought was the biggest reward of all: acceptance to Harvard. Stress is not just a wrongdoer; it can be a motivator. So the recent movement to label stress as something toxic and dangerous may be an equally dangerous mistake.

Blacklisting stress has caused us to avoid rather than confront it. This all-or-nothing approach to stress is unsafe and unsustainable. Rather than brush stress off as something that solely has adverse effects on students and advocate every measure possible to reduce stress, universities should encourage students to learn how to take greater control of it. Especially given the overachieving nature of Harvard students, simply trying to shift the culture to a less stressful one both trivializes our hardworking spirit as well as what mental illness actually entails.

We all walk a precarious line between productivity and breakdown. Unfortunately, it seems like all we’re paying attention to is the breakdown. Perhaps it is human nature to fixate on the tragedy in every situation, but to ignore the bright side is to invite a slippery slope linking even the slightest of stressors to the possibility of a mental health problem. Fixating on the breakdown and placing such a strong negative stigma on stress is dangerous for all students. Anxiety is a disease. Stress is not.

Allison P. Yan ‘19, a Crimson editorial executive, is a Human Evolutionary Biology concentrator in Quincy House.