Allen O’Barr, director of Counseling and Psychological Services, said academic stress in college, coupled with other life stressors, pushes students past the amount of stress that can encourage productivity in a healthy way.
“It’s my impression that most people who are in an academic setting are currently stressed beyond what their body is actually geared to tolerate,” O’Barr said. “It’s bad enough when you don’t have any other stress besides academic stress, but when you add the other stresses in, it tips the balance.”
Kierra Campbell is a co-director for outreach at the Campus Y who is also involved with the NAACP. The senior global studies and political science major said during the 2014-15 school year, when she was involved with the Real Silent Sam Coalition and other groups, she dedicated half of her week to activism on average.
This year, she said while she might dedicate less of her time, she still has to find time to focus on her schoolwork.
“It was difficult, honestly. I was under a lot of stress because figuring that out was a really difficult part,” she said. “You know, you’re marching or protesting or talking with individuals about something you’re very passionate about, and yet I’ve got a paper due or something.”
She said although academic stress can build up, having a firm belief in doing the right thing keeps her going.
“If you’re not grounded in that, when the burnout comes, you will burn out,” she said. “You will not just burn out with activism, you will burn out with academics.”
O’Barr said while heavy involvement in extracurricular activities and activism can put extra stress on students, the threat of burning out continues after students graduate.
“Where you put your energy is a difficult balance for anybody to strike in a university setting, but especially for someone who is involved in activism or other really important extracurricular activities. They’re always trying to squeeze all of this into a 24-hour day,” O’Barr said.
Balance then and now
When geography professor Altha Cravey went to college, the culture of the late ’60s swept her up into feminism, anti-war politics and racial justice.
“They were kind of wrapped up together, but I think the one that really seems most vivid for me when I think back about college time is the anti-war protest because that had such a sense of urgency,” Cravey said.
She said when she was a student, she didn’t see activism taking away from her academics, and she wasn’t as pressured as today’s students.
“This whole question of work-life balance and things, I think, is a recent kind of conversation because there are so many pressures that didn’t exist then,” she said.
Cravey said since then, she’s been trying to find the right balance between the causes she cares about and the rest of her life.
“I think maybe more of my personality is to get really involved in things and then when the time’s right, I take a longer break, rather than being the person with some kind of sensible, daily practice,” she said.
She said even now she can get caught up in movements and neglect other aspects of her life.
“I guess in my lifetime I felt that my level of commitment kind of comes and goes, and that’s fine,” Cravey said. “Some years I won’t do as much, and some years, like the last couple of years, I’ve been really obsessed, and I’ve just had to accept that. I haven’t been very good about balancing it, but I’ve just gone with it.”
Campbell stressed the importance of self-care in finding a balance between academics and activism.
“I would say self-care involves knowing yourself,” she said. “You need to just recognize your body symptoms and your mind. You need to recognize when your mind gets tired and when your body reaches its breaking point. When you recognize that, you need to first of all take a step back and stop answering phone calls or answering emails — just rest.”
She said she’s had to find ways to relieves stress to avoid burning out.
“For me, self-care looks like dancing. I love to dance, so after my body was well rested, I would get up and go dance somewhere. It’s cheery and just lifted a lot of that weight physically and emotionally off of me. Self-care is also for me spending time with people I care about and love,” she said.
“It looks like taking care of yourself physically so you don’t physically harm yourself by wearing yourself out, but also that you do activities that uplift your spirit and also really de-stress your mind.”
Junior Charity Lackey said she is not involved with any particular activist group on campus, but she and her friends organize around issues of systemic racial injustice.
She said activism can take its toll emotionally, making it difficult to go to class after a particularly traumatizing event. In these cases, she said her friends are an important part of self-care.
“I may have friends check on me both emotionally and physically,” she said.
Cravey said taking care of others is an important part of activism, along with practicing self-care.
“We need to take care of the people we’re working with and recognize when they’re tired and invite them to a meal when they look like they haven’t had a meal for a while or taken a break for a while,” Cravey said. “It’s self-care, but also community care, collective care.”