Combatting stress: Crushing the essay crisis

Cait Findlay 9 March 2017

We are all familiar with the concept of essay crises: working in a frenzy of anxiety to complete your work before the deadline, generally fuelled by some variety of caffeine-dense drink, resulting in sleep deprivation, extreme stress, or both. We have romanticised and glamorised this undeniably unhealthy behaviour until it almost seems admirable or desirable.

The essay crisis has become the pinnacle of the Cambridge academic experience, symbolising that undying devotion to your subject that we all (somewhat) hyperbolically claimed to have had when we applied here. More than that, it has become an emblem of the fact that Cambridge students pack so much into their waking hours that the only way to have time for everything is to sacrifice our sleep and mental wellbeing.

Cambridge students and administration alike appear to pride themselves on how stressful its terms are. We see this in multiple places, such as the arbitrarily short but hectic eight-week long terms, to which multiple objections have been vetoed in the name of tradition, as well as the fact that one’s lack of sleep, mountain of work and difficulty of degree are constant hot topics of conversation.

If sleep is as undeniably wonderful and necessary as it is, what possible reason could we have for subjecting ourselves to these unhealthy and soul-sucking crises? It is time for some serious thinking when saying “I only got three hours of sleep last night”, or “I need five coffees to function today” sounds more like a boast than an admission that something is wrong.

Part of this attitude stems from the ‘impostor syndrome’ that affects all of us. It can be hard to recognise these statements as unhealthy when you already feel like you are somehow ‘not good enough’. This feeling is augmented by constant comparison with our fellow Englings, Natscis, Mathmos, etc. We all know, in the logical parts of our brains, that this comparison is both unhelpful and unnecessary. However, that part of the brain seems to go mysteriously silent when anxiety starts talking.

We are intelligent students – or at least, we are clever enough to convince people that we are. We know that sacrificing sleep and sanity for an essay is irrational. And, for those who think that giving up a few hours of sleep to nish that essay does not make a difference, there are endless studies which prove that it does.

I won’t bother boring you with the numbers, but suffice it to say that every single study agrees that a lack of sleep has a detrimental impact upon cognitive performance.

Most crucially, it has a negative effect upon the very work for which we are sacrifising those much-needed dreaming hours. In the short term, it may help us to get that essay written, or that worksheet completed, but over a long period of time – say, an eight- week term – the effects are bound to be exponential.

This is not to mention the effect on mental health. Working until the wee hours with an unhealthy blood caffeine level is hardly the type of habit you want to become engrained into your psyche, and that is not to mention the more serious effects such a lifestyle could potentially entail.

Happiness and health should always come ahead of academia, regardless of the academic pressures and expectations you may be facing.

So how can we dismantle this romanticisation of stress, caffeine addiction, and sleeplessness? The first step, in my view, is to stop calling it an ‘essay crisis’, and to remember that, ultimately, it is only an essay. Changing attitudes starts with refocusing on reality, and not exaggerating mildly stressful situations until they become all-consuming and completely blown out of proportion.

In the hours and minutes leading up to a deadline, it can feel like nothing else is more important than work, but this is simply untrue.

A little bit of stress can be a good source of motivation, and, in an academic pressure cooker like Cambridge, is almost inevitable. However, it is neither an admirable nor a sustainable lifestyle.

Let’s stop glorifying the essay crisis, and start celebrating a healthy attitude towards work instead.