Opinion

Between Panic and Moderation: The non-stop metronome

As the coronavirus pandemic has brought life indoors, UW-Madison students have found themselves caught between toxic productivity culture, mental health struggles and self-care. 

As the coronavirus pandemic has brought life indoors, UW-Madison students have found themselves caught between toxic productivity culture, mental health struggles and self-care. 

Image By: Kavitha Babu

The past few weeks have felt like a really long, really twisted game of Tug O’ War. On one side of the tattered rope is a realm of untapped possibilities — that book you never quite had time to read while in-person classes were the norm, a new hobby, virtually-adapted coursework. 

But on the other side is an entirely different beast — an overwhelming media scene, 24/7 social media audiences and a Netflix queue that will never be emptied. Our internalized panic begs us to stay in bed just a few more minutes — there is no longer a professor waiting or uniform to change into, after all — and to play one more iPhone game before tending to our responsibilities. 

So what is more toxic to the hordes of college students ripped from their campuses: The insatiable hunger to always do more, more, more, or the anxiety-ridden allure of doing absolutely nothing? 

The answer may seem obvious, as productivity is (usually) great news, but sending a group of students spiraling over petty problem sets and essays as the country — and world — shuts down around us may be doing more harm than good. 

In Conversation

Gathering the experiences of our fellow Badgers, we came to a stomach-knotting conclusion: Every one of us is struggling. With a pandemic looming above our heads, schoolwork piling up to be finished and our lives coming to a halt for the indefinite future, it seems as though we’ve all made it to the tipping point, the verge of total collapse. 

Senior Lauren Hartman, who identifies as a “life-long introvert,” was relatively confident when social distancing measures were first put in place. 

“I thought it would be a chance to recharge and get away from campus, which I always need at this point in the semester,” said Hartman. “In reality, though, it definitely hasn’t been a relaxing break from reality in the way that winter break and summer are. It’s been a strange mixture of emotions — fear, anxiety, frustration, exhaustion, uncertainty, gratitude, hope — that has been overwhelming at times.” 

Hartman has been working her on-campus job remotely, while balancing coursework and applying for full-time jobs in an uneasy hiring climate. 

“Now that I’m stuck at home, I have had to reevaluate all of the strategies that I normally use to be successful. My go-to study spots are off-limits. I can’t head to a coffee shop for a couple hours when my sister is blasting music in her bedroom or my dog is barking like crazy,” said Hartman. “Overall, it has been pretty discouraging.”

Being stuck indoors with a full family or roommates is distracting enough, let alone introducing internet connectivity problems and other logistical distractions. And with our phones at our fingertips, social media and streaming platforms dig the hole of distraction even deeper. 

This makes things even more difficult for folks with a history of mental health struggles. Students seeking mental health treatment in Madison may be deprived of these services and students who were planning on seeking treatment may no longer feel supported in doing so. 

Mulu Belete, a junior, had been considering therapy for a while before the pandemic to help mitigate the pressure of her busy schedule working as a house fellow, WASB member, student and member of a plethora of other clubs and organizations. 

“My semester started really strong and I was really proud of myself and feeling motivated, but now with the craziness of everything, I have for sure lost my motivation. I had scheduled my first therapy session through UHS months ago and due to everything [going on], it was switched from an in-person meeting to a phone call. I wasn't really comfortable having my first therapy session over the phone, so we decided to postpone my appointments until we can be in-person again,” said Belete. “This was frustrating because it took so many months to get an appointment and even more working up the nerve to schedule one in the first place.” 

To make matters worse, Belete is now contemplating a major change due to the uncertainty following the conclusion of the spring semester. 

“I was planning to be abroad this summer finishing my French major, but obviously that can't happen... I also have spent lots of time trying to figure out if I can even get a French major anymore,” said Belete. “Without the 12 credits that I would have gotten abroad this summer, the chances are unlikely unless I am willing to take an extra semester.” 

The issue of studying abroad during a pandemic is anything but foreign to the Badger student body — a huge portion of students abroad were forced to return to the United States prematurely due to the public health crisis. Emma McClure was one of these students. 

“If I had to describe the situation in one word, I think I would use 'jarring' because it was just such a quick and all-consuming change,” said McClure. “One minute I was in Ireland concerned about submitting a discussion question and the next I was booking a ticket home, leaving all my new friends and a country I'd grown to love, trying to figure out how to pass my classes from a different continent.” 

McClure has struggled with her mental health before. Being separated from loved ones while abroad and now again during social distancing has certainly been a challenge for her. 

“My mind is just elsewhere: I have family members that are healthcare workers, friends that have been laid off, people I am constantly worried about, so if I don't watch a lecture every day, sometimes I just don't care,” said McClure. 

Becca Chadwick, a junior, echoes these same concerns. Her abrupt return from Sydney, Australia, coupled with the distance from friends and family has distinctly affected her time in quarantine.

“I’m having a very hard time being productive, but also I feel like I don’t have anything to do because of the lack of pressure. And having to come home from being abroad takes its own toll on my motivation and mental health,” said Chadwick. “It’s hard to acclimate at home when I was literally on a different continent, a different hemisphere, living my dream life.” 

Ultimately, our minds are simultaneously preoccupied with anxieties about school, work and global health, as push notifications chime and family members babble in the background. This constant bombardment of noise, both inside and outside our heads, has left us numb — paralyzed in place with no effective means to recover, to find that drive we once had. 

This difficulty to motivate one’s self amidst various distractions also comes at an especially unique cost to graduating seniors like Aidan Blecke. 

“All of a sudden, there’s no sense of urgency anymore. I don’t have things and people reminding me my college experience is going to end. And it’s weird,” said Blecke. “It’s hard to self-motivate when everything feels so anticlimactic.” 

With the postponement of graduation, looming uncertainty over the future and the idea of barreling headfirst into a dead economy, quarantine is far from comforting for the class of 2020. It seems as though each day is met with another email about a cancelled internship or another cover letter written for a company that may not even be hiring. Many of us feel like chickens with our heads cut off, scrambling to put together materials so some company somewhere will hire us, all while trying to navigate these already difficult and draining times. 

To Panic or Not To Panic  

This inner conflict that we’ve all felt, of whether we should be using this time more wisely or feel guilty about watching that last episode, is a direct result of growing up and being shaped by this toxic world we live in.

And this isn’t just a coincidence — that everyone is finding themselves caught between the crossfires of productivity, self-care, stress and anxiety. 

“It’s a go-go-go culture, we always want more and to do more. We want to be productive because we think that’s how we’re going to get somewhere in life,” said Macey Wolfe, a junior. 

Work culture is hyper-focused on efficiency, keeping track of who can tick the most boxes in the shortest amount of time, and the college experience seems to reflect that. 

“We’ve been brought up to be hyper-competitive and to not relax even when it feels like we should be able to,” said Blecke. “I feel that as a constant pressing thing in my life. And I don’t necessarily think it’s a good thing.” 

As this pandemic has turned our worlds upside down — and largely indoors — this fight between productivity and self-care is now more alive than ever before. At this point, we should be proud of ourselves for merely making it through. 

Many Badgers were abruptly removed from their living situations, creating additional concerns and burdens for students who are low-income, food-insecure, undergoing mental health treatment in Madison, those unable to return to their childhood homes and the like. 

“Maybe this experience will shed light on why students are pressured to be productive and how it impacts our mental health, grades, professional development and more,” remarked senior Lauren Hoffarth.

While it may be difficult to be overly positive right now, we can only hope that in sharing experiences and resources with one another, we can initiate a larger conversation surrounding work culture.  

Despite what the individuals protesting to open the economy believe, we are each more than just a body for exerting labor. 

For COVID-19 related updates and resources, visit covid19.wisc.edu/for-students/

Kavitha is a junior studying Sociology and Political Science, with a certificate in Educational Policy Studies. Sam is a senior studying Journalism with certificates in Environmental Studies and Development Economics. How have social distancing measures impacted you as a college student? Send all comments to opinion@dailycardinal.com

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