Stressed out? Some Jewish tips to keep you sane:
Another year, another fall quarter. In 2013, when my husband and I were starting out at JAM at UCSB, my husband made a Facebook post wishing all the students much success in the upcoming semester. The UCLA Rabbi quickly messaged my husband saying “The UCs have quarters not semesters.” My husband and I looked at each other and wondered, what is a quarter? We were soon to find out.
College can be stressful for many students but the quarter system, with its fast pace and constant stream of midterms, seems to create an especially charged environment. Some students thrive in this environment but for many others it can be destructive to their mental health and emotional well-being. Although the Torah pre-dates the UC system, some ancient, yet eternal concepts can help us navigate college and other high stress environments.
1. You are enough.
Western society equates worth with productivity. We are all conditioned to believe we “are” what we “do.” This perspective creates an endless internal need to “achieve” in order to feel that we are worthy of existing. Social researcher Brene Brown calls this “the hustle for worthiness” and this creates a society governed by fear and shame.
In contrast, Judaism tells us that we were all created in the image of G-d and have that spark within us. We have an innate worth that is neither caused nor defined by what we do or create. In fact, for 25 hours every Shabbat we are forbidden from creative work.
I have personally noticed that individuals who are constantly “hustling for worthiness,” who equate their inner value with their productivity, find Shabbat to be especially challenging. If I can’t achieve or produce on Shabbat then what and who am I? Judaism reminds us, you are worthy. You can make mistakes but you will never “be” a mistake. The endless burden of things to “do” can never threaten who you are.
2. Value and honor your effort.
Judaism makes clear to us that spiritually it is only our effort that counts, irrespective of whatever results may or may not be achieved. Although the “real” world seems to function based on achievement and not effort, the reality is that we are only in control of the effort we invest and not in the fruit that is yielded.
The Jewish concept of emuna (faith) tells us that we need to do a reasonable effort and then G-d will do the rest. What happens may not be what we wanted, but the results are out of our hands. The irony of course is that we are so often focused on worrying about what is outside of our control that we “forget” to do our part.
Each day, instead of getting overwhelmed with what you need to “accomplish,” focus on what is within your control. Ask yourself, what is your reasonable effort for today and then invest your energy into your efforts and not into worrying over the outcome.
3. You are not a dog about to be eaten.
Life can sometimes feel like a competition and universities can exacerbate this mentality when students know that only a percentage of a class can get an “A.” Judaism says that G-d is limitless and no one can take away what we are meant to have. A wise sage was once quoted as saying that he was not worried that at the end of his life he would not measure up to great individuals of the past or present but rather only that he would not measure up to the greatest version of himself. So much stress results from comparing ourselves to others who seem to have more, do more, achieve more and succeed more, but comparisons are illusory. G-d doesn’t compare us to anyone else and neither should we. Look inward and ask yourself, what else can I be doing to become the best version of myself.
4. Take a break from work with love and connection.
Many college students tell me that they find the idea of Shabbat to be beautiful and valuable but they simply have too much to do to take that much time “off.” Oftentimes, though, when asked about how productive they were the previous weekend, many students admit that they didn’t achieve much. The truth is that whether you keep Shabbat or not, no one can be productive 24/7. We all need breaks and we’ll find a way to get them. The only question that remains is will the breaks be taken mindfully and consciously and in a way that will truly refresh and invigorate us or will they be taken unconsciously in front of a screen and we’ll often feel more exhausted afterwards than before we started?
Taking a break from stress by spending time with others in loving and nurturing environments fills two needs, our need for rest and our need for human connection and belonging. The importance of this cannot be overstated. One big contributor for stress for college students that is not discussed enough is that they often feel like a number in a vast and impersonal system and they feel lacking in love and connection. College students are living away from home, from family and loved ones, for the first time in their lives. They are often sitting in classes in large lecture halls where no one knows or cares whether they show up. They are always surrounded by people and yet many don’t experience true connection with those around them. Indeed, the loneliness that you can feel in a crowd is usually much more potent than what you feel when you are by yourself. Take care of yourself by taking a break with people who care about you in environments that facilitate love and connection.