Mehring: Killing Us All

It is widely understood that prolonged, chronic stress is more or less catastrophic to the human condition, and it is exactly that sort of unmitigated, unrelenting stress that comprises a cornerstone of the Dartmouth experience.

It is widely understood that prolonged, chronic stress is more or less catastrophic to the human condition, and it is exactly that sort of unmitigated, unrelenting stress that comprises a cornerstone of the Dartmouth experience.

Samantha Lindsay / The Dartmouth


As the resident scientist of my friend group, I regularly field questions pertaining to the body and brain: "If I put my hand down my throat, can I touch my own heart?" (You can try.) "Will my brain come out of my nose if I blow too hard?" (I wouldn't risk it.) "Could The Walking Dead' happen in real life?" (Almost definitely.) But a more recent query gave me pause: a flummoxed companion faced with six hours to complete a 2,000 word assignment threw up her hands and asked, "Might this paper actually be the death of me?" In a way, it actually might.

It is widely understood that prolonged, chronic stress is more or less catastrophic to the human condition, and it is exactly that sort of unmitigated, unrelenting stress that comprises a cornerstone of the Dartmouth experience.


The Dartmouth Plan renders each term into a marathon of writing papers, completing projects, taking exams, attending lectures and endless studying, with the interspersion of extracurricular pursuits in between. After club meetings, athletic obligations, social activities, occupational duties and the like, you hope for a few hours of shuteye between the library's 2 a.m. closing hymn and the punishing cry of your morning alarm. Managing a single square meal a day feels like an accomplishment of its own. And don't even dream about getting sick: catching up from just a few missed classes can prove a Sisyphean task.


Perhaps I am drawing excessively from personal experience here, but we are all familiar with the unpleasantness of stress. What you may not appreciate is how damaging stress can be. To prepare for that looming deadline, your body activates the same physiological mechanisms that once abetted the Darwinian struggles of our ancient ancestors. These adaptations were immensely useful in dueling with competitors over an abandoned cave or escaping the jaws of a carnivorous predator, but have perhaps proven more harmful in a modern context and especially over the long term.


As stress hormones course through the bloodstream, they target and chip away at important brain and muscle tissues like heat-seeking missiles penetrating a military defense. Blood vessels squeeze and splinter, while the overworked heart muscle thickens and strains. As the keyed-up body guzzles up its energy stores, less is reserved for recovery and immunity: the damage is done and it persists. A little sleep might reverse this trend but, as previously implicated, good luck with that here. A lack of sleep compounds the stress, while stress itself further hampers sleep.


That KAF pastry we inevitably scarf down, whether enticed by the chemical influences of stress or just to cope a little, accumulates in our arteries as a mucilaginous crud. We might bathe our neurons in ethanol on the weekends for a distraction, but those neurons, and our liver cells, wither away just the same. We could turn to our friends for emotional support, but Dartmouth's unduly stratified, hierarchical social environment might instead invoke feelings of alienation and additional stress.


Day after day, week after week, term after term, energy leaches out of our cells, important tissues weaken and die and we abuse our bodies with poor eating habits, sleep deprivation and a deluge of toxic chemical compounds. These insults plant the seeds of fatal illness later on heart attacks, cancer and strokes among them and ultimately contribute to our death. Thus, a few nights spent cramming in the 1902 Room may contribute to a better grade on an upcoming exam as well as a few years shaved off the tail end of your life.


While the degree to which each of us is affected hinges on several factors, including courseload, extracurricular involvement, self-discipline and inherent coping ability, Dartmouth is certainly an uncommonly stressful, and thus uncommonly harmful, experience for all. The purpose of a Dartmouth education is to provide opportunities to improve our lives, yet a bit of scientific application suggests that this same educational experience reliably works to degrade our health and ultimately shorten our lives.


But even if we work to reduce the stress load here at Dartmouth by individually making healthy choices or, perhaps, institutionally restructuring the academic and social environments, we then face a "real world" of 100-hour work weeks, constant interpersonal commitments and widespread sociopolitical strife. What needs to change is not so much Dartmouth as a prevailing Western cultural mindset. Now just thinking about that stresses me out.


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