In brief...

I'm a Nature-lover, aspiring conservationist, and wannabe traveller in search of outdoor adventure.
My interests vary from conservation to education to heritage to Nature (biodiversity & wildlife) to outdoor activities to life in general.
They occupy most of my waking moment.
Do read my blogs, follow me on Twitter (@jocelynesze) and friend me on Facebook (subject to my discretion). Visit my Nature blog, Nature Rambles, at http://natureramble.wordpress.com.

UPDATE 2 Apr 2017 - This site is no longer maintained, please visit jocelynesze.wordpress.com if you're interested in more recent writing.

Sunday, January 25, 2015

"Is it stressful??"

Being from Raffles and now Cambridge, it's not uncommon to be asked that question. I always found that to be a bit of an odd question, because surely how stressful you find an environment depends on yourself and how well you cope with stress. Every individual organism has a range of tolerance to various stresses in the environment, some with a smaller range, others larger. Of course, the environment itself can be considered stressful or not. In biological terms, a habitat like an intertidal rocky shore is usually considered to be stressful as organisms are exposed to a wide range of environmental parameters over a short time period, eg daily high and low tides. But that doesn't mean you don't find living organisms living at an intertidal rocky shore; you just find organisms better adapted at coping with the stresses there.

A better question would perhaps be 'do you find it stressful?', to which I would probably have a long, ponderous answer.

When I was in Raffles, whether the four years in secondary school or the two years in junior college, I don't think I felt it particularly stressful. I didn't feel the need to produce a perfect piece of work all the time, or to have read widely. I could engage in all the other things I enjoyed doing, hold multiple positions in several different groups/societies, spend a fair amount of my time not studying and not feel particularly bothered by it. Sure, there were times when I was stressed by the activities I was organising when they weren't going well, but those are only to be expected. I had my friends who were in similar situations and we could gripe and whine about our problems together.

The city of stress. View from St. John College's tower

Here in Cambridge though, it's a little trickier to answer that question. I read an article on Quora on what it's like to attend the University of Cambridge, and there appears to be quite a few voices saying if they could turn back time, they wouldn't have come to Cambridge because it's competitive, stressful, fitting in socially was difficult etc. There is a current on-going campaign by the Cambridge University Student Union to reduce the stress experienced by students during term time here, by introducing a reading week in the middle of term. Most people seem to be in favour of it (the motion passed during CUSU's council meeting last Monday) but I am rather apprehensive of how effective it would actually be. There is a high number of students in Cambridge who suffer from mental health issues (though I'm a bit doubtful of the rigour of that survey and it's reliability), which was probably why the whole Cambridge-is-too-stressful issues was brought up in the first place.

I can't say I haven't been stressed out during my term here. When I go for lectures and supervisions, I do feel like I haven't been doing enough work. I need to read more, I need to remember the names, I need to spend more time thinking about my subject area and trying to form links between different things, I need to write better essays, I need to think more critically etc. I feel like I need to spend more time on my work because I'm not as brilliant (my mind's not as sharp, my critical thinking is severely lacking etc) as some of my peers who seem to produce really good arguments without much effort.

And though most courses here would be equally if not more rigorous (I thankfully do not have labs, though I do have practicals where I stare at bones and rocks and things), plenty of people still find the time to do all sorts of other things. Performing or directing plays/musicals, organising conferences, playing sports which actually require training (I play for my college in netball matches about once a month or so), going on weekend trips hiking/climbing/caving (which I've only ever done once in my almost three years here because I'm paranoid about being away from work for so long), being part of choir/music ensembles, the list just goes on. Oh and of course, people find time to go clubbing, socialising, and drinking till 4am as well.

Or staying in lab till sunset (or past it even). View from Earth sciences department GSA lab

But people are able to cope. We gripe, we get stressed, we can't wait for the end of week 8. It's a matter of what you expect from yourself. Being surrounded by amazing and brilliant people, it's really easy to get overwhelmed and feel insignificant and inferior. I know I've felt that more often than not during my time here, but I try not to let that get me down, because I know I got in for a reason, and different people have different strengths.

To me, academic stress isn't as detrimental as social stress. Everyone wants to do well academically, and getting in to Cambridge is probably a sign that you are able to perform to some academic standards. But not everyone has the same social 'capacity', for lack of a better word. There are really extroverted people, who easily make lots of friends and spend lots of time socialising, and there are really introverted people who avoid social events and spend most of their time in their room, and there are those in between. Every one of these people is likely to have felt alone and depressed at some point in Cambridge.

Those who feel alone, and that on top of all the academic stress, is what I think causes breakdowns. I feel that because everyone comes from such different social backgrounds, have such different interests etc, that people feeling like they're alone, that their situation is unique and that other people don't get where they're coming from/why they're feeling upset or stressed occurs more often than at other places perhaps. But I guess if you've at least got a good group of friends, those moments come and go and you know they're just phases in your life. Or if you've got a somewhat stable mental state.

I'm not saying that people having mental health problems and facing depression in Cambridge is an insignificant issue, or that they are insignificant. It matters, and we should care and look out for these people. But the fact of life is that the world is not going to become less stressful just because depression is on the rise globally. I personally feel that most people aren't prepared to come to university, or to deal with the stresses that come with it. Maybe in particular Cambridge more than others.

Cambridge is a stressful university to be in, but knowing that lots of other people have gone through it and emerged (seemingly) fine, and that other people are in it together with me help me cope I guess, and like what a lady told me when I was on a soup run and concerned that she didn't have a warm place to sleep that night, what doesn't kill you makes you stronger.

And even during the most stressful period (the weeks before exams), running through places like this just makes one feel better.

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