Imagine this: after your grueling day of classes, you say to one of your friends, “I have so much on my plate right now. I have to work on 2 group projects, read 4 textbook chapters, write a 5-page essay, study for a test, do 30 math problems, and on top of that, I have to volunteer for a few hours and go to 2 different club meetings this week.”
By sharing your overwhelming workload with your fellow classmate, you were hoping that they would recognize your stressed mindset and in turn, comfort you with words of encouragement and reassurance. But what if, like most students these days, your friend did the opposite? Instead, your friend’s response to your venting is something like this: “That’s easy compared to what I have to do. I need to finish all of the homework that you mentioned, plus another 10 math problems for extra credit all while going to dance lessons and rehearsals outside of school for 20 hours this week. I have so much more stress because I have no free time to do the work I have.”
Without meaning to, your friend dismissed your very valid feelings of anxiety and stress by one-upping you with their own enormous, and just as stressful, to-do list. This contest for the title of having the worst schedule, having the highest stress levels, and being the most overworked is known as the Stress Olympics, and it is all too common in high school and college. Not surprisingly, it originates from our human nature to share and empathize. We all have experienced genuine and overwhelming distress. When our burdens become too much for us to bear on our own, we reach out for help from others and they do the same. However, instead of having the healthy and intended outcome of sympathy and relief, the Stress Olympics only exacerbate and normalize excessive stress levels and unhealthy behaviors by creating competition and anxiety.
Even I am guilty of competing in the Stress Olympics. I have responded to several of my classmates that have come to me for help with their stressful feelings by claiming my own problems were more overwhelming and stressful than theirs, just like what was said by the hypothetical friend I mentioned above. At the time, I did not realize what I was doing would only make my friends feel worse. Today I know it is so easy to give in to the Stress Olympics when the culture in our high schools and colleges is an extremely stressful environment that encourages competition and cutthroat mindsets. It is always healthier and more beneficial to listen and comfort those that confide in you instead of ignoring and trumping their valid feelings.
We must be more aware of when we participate in the Stress Olympics and be able to recognize how quickly a conversation can turn into a battle. Then, we can transform the argument into a discussion and steer it towards a more understanding and healing direction. Let’s lift each other up with support and encouragement instead of tearing each other down with pointless competition. I don’t know about you, but I’d much rather be productive and healthy than win the gold medal in the Stress Olympics any day.