Vivian Hoang ’24 is a history major and is working towards self-designing a second journalism & mass communications major. On campus, she serves as one of two variety editors of The Flat Hat, one of two copy chiefs of Flat Hat Magazine, a peer consultant at the Writing Resources Center, and the family chair of the Vietnamese Student Association — and that’s her version of taking it easy. You can contact Vivian at email@example.com.
The views expressed in the article are the author’s own.
Recently, I was so stressed that I chewed a hole in my cheek. Well…sort of. In October 2022, right before Fall Break, I began feeling a sharp stabbing sensation in the right side of my mouth. But I ignored the constant pain rippling through my jaw and cheek and continued powering through my midterms, even turning the physical discomfort into a motivator for finishing my essays because the sooner I did, the sooner I could schedule an emergency appointment as a twisted sort of reward.
Eventually at said appointment, the dentist poked and prodded around in my mouth, per the usual. After a couple of minutes, he scooted his chair back, put his tools down and lifted up his brightly lit glasses.
“I just have one more question for you,” he said, folding his arms across his chest.
Oh for the love of God, please don’t ask me if I’ve been flossing-
“Are you a college student?” he asked, raising his eyebrows quizzically, to which I promptly answered yes, at the College of William and Mary.
“Ah, I see. Have you been burning the candle at both ends?” he continued to ask, “Maybe like, doing so much you can’t handle it? Not eating or sleeping well? Being under a lot of stress?” I blinked rapidly once, twice. The extremely (dare I say too) accurate analysis of my present condition was one I expected at a therapy rather than dentist appointment.
“Uh…yes, exactly that,” I answered somewhat apprehensively, still taken aback.
“Well, that’d do it,” he said. “What I’m seeing on the right side of your cheek is an ulcer with teeth lacerations surrounding it, suggesting that you’ve been chewing on the interior walls of your mouth, either consciously or unconsciously, and grinding your teeth. The jaw pain you’re experiencing is from clenching your jaw too often. Most of these are symptomatic of extreme stress.”
If I wasn’t in the vicinity of a working professional that social norms mandate I conduct myself appropriately around, my jaw would have dropped to the floor.
Although, I really shouldn’t have been so surprised because ever since I can remember, I’ve been overworked.
Since the age of eight when I enrolled in my first advanced academic program, I’ve been transfixed on perfection, consumed by every neat little A on my report card despite the physical and mental toll it wrought on me. At a young age, I learned very quickly that the school system was a dog-eat-dog world that wasn’t composed of peers, but instead competitors who were outpacing me in the race towards the next chapter of our lives. I genuinely believed that if I didn’t spend every waking moment I had working towards that elusive prize, overextending myself in every arena possible to show colleges how “well-rounded” and “hard-working” I was, I would simply never reach the next step of my life and instead be shoved aside by my much more qualified classmates. My goal seemed simple — get into a “good” college, whatever that really meant — but tied within that was a compulsive need for validation through academic and extracurricular achievement.
This mindset led me to feel immense guilt for any nanosecond I spent not bettering my future. A silent warning bell rang in the back of my mind during every outing with friends or family, reminding me not to get too comfortable because there was work waiting for me to do. That constant internal alarm meant that I could never truly engage in the moment or relax the electrified nerves twisted and tangled under my skin; my mind was always too focused on the ten million other responsibilities I felt an urgent obligation to tend to.
But I know it’s not just me. I know that the majority of those of you who are reading this article now are similarly afflicted with this virulent condition — a grade-A (pun intended) obsession with productivity — perhaps even with worse cases than I. Part of the reason I found myself so deeply entrenched in cycles of ungodly productivity followed by depressive burnout was because doing so was so normalized within my social circles that I didn’t realize it was a problem. All my life, I’ve been so deeply surrounded by high-achieving and intelligent peers that I thought it was just the way of life to have fifty million conflicting commitments because of the sheer workload you’ve convinced yourself you could definitely handle (surprise, surprise, you couldn’t), or to be in a constant zombie-like state of sleep deprivation because of how little you value your own health over meeting your goals.
This insane hustle culture is one I have witnessed be endemic to Northern Virginia kids in particular — my respective high school and college friends, the vast majority of whom are from NOVA, act in the exact same overachieving ways, running in the same rat races only in different locations. NOVA is essentially pumping out little genius babies at this point, and when the College is essentially an aggregation of the highest-achieving students of their respective high schools — the middle 50% GPA of its student body ranges from between 4.1-4.5 for God’s sake — it makes perfect sense why nearly half (as of 2018-19) of the College’s student body draws from NOVA.
Now, I must make clear that I don’t say all this in a self-pitying, ‘oh no, woe is me, I was given too much opportunity to succeed and learn in my white suburban upbringing and now I’m tiiiirreeeddd of it all’ sort of way. I 100% recognize I had much privilege and many advantages in being raised in NOVA. But I also have to acknowledge the price imposed upon such an upbringing, that growing up in such a competitive environment has had lasting long term effects, saddling me and many others I know with debilitating cases of burnout and mental illness. Given my background, it really shouldn’t come as any surprise that I suffer from generalized anxiety disorder in which my primary coping mechanism is overfunctioning.
So I think it’s about time we’ve addressed this deadly overachievement as more than a punchline when speaking about “spoiled rich kids” from NOVA.
To put it frankly: we need to stop normalizing the act of stressing ourselves to the point of mental ruin, of dedicating every waking moment to our careers and academics to the point that we no longer know who we are and what brings us joy beyond the narrow confines of institution-based achievements. It’s time to let go of the pressures to constantly be working towards some fictitious, grand future. Shouldn’t we be focused on making the most of the present, the here and now? I know firsthand that it’s absolutely exhausting trying to be perfect or even extraordinary in all aspects of your life.
Despite what all your peers’ lengthy LinkedIn pages may indicate, you are not behind in life, and you are doing more than enough. You don’t need to always be the best of the best, and sometimes you are your best when you’re doing less and focusing your energies on a select few things that really matter to you rather than a hodgepodge of volunteer work and extracurriculars that ‘look good’ on paper.
And let us not forget to heed the dire importance of creating a realistic, manageable workload that provides you with enough time to recharge — a life of all work and no play will never be sustainable.
Though allowing myself to enjoy downtime without panic or guilt is still something I struggle to do on a daily basis, I can definitely attest to the positive impacts of blocking out time for self-care. By the end of last semester, I became so burnt out by the sheer amount of commitments I had taken on that I began skipping social events out of pure physical and mental exhaustion. Sure, during those weekends I may have felt some FOMO and shame for backing out on plans with my loved ones, but in the long run, even just one day off renewed me with so much more energy to go back out the next weekend when I was genuinely feeling up for it.
And self-care doesn’t have to be a massive undertaking like a full-on spa day with back massages and saunas (although that does sound quite nice…); it can be as simple as a 15-minute walk or reading your favorite book. For me, it’s writing silly little articles like this or delving into the depths of Spotify in the pursuit of new music. But what it’s not is taking a shower or eating a meal — the bare necessities do not count as a restful, self-empowering break, so stop trying to convince yourself they do.
Even if uncomfortable at first, time alone grows to be comforting and rejuvenating rather than intimidating; I promise you that having some white space in your Google Calendar will not kill but rather heal you. Trust me, carving out time for life’s little pleasures allows you to tackle your bigger, scarier responsibilities and commitments with greater ease.
In the end, what I’ll leave you with is this: break the cycle. Learn to say no, delegate responsibilities and prioritize yourself first. Clearly, by my opening anecdote, you’ve seen that the mental can easily translate into the physiological — don’t let your mind break your body all for some abstract measure of success. Don’t feed into the cultures of stress glorification and incessant productivity that you became indoctrinated with in high school, even if they still beckon you now at the College.
College is a brand new world. And that world should be as stress-free as possible.