Tips for turning struggle into strength

Op-eds Opinions

How to overcome the adversity of doing more than you can handle

Graphic by Darian Lee, Design Director

As we pass the deadline for receiving refunds for dropped courses, some students may feel they have too much on their plate, will take the financial hit, and drop the excess classes accordingly. Others may be more stubborn about it. Maybe you’re trying to graduate and you just can’t bear to sit in school for one more semester, or you really need some prerequisite. Or you can’t afford to throw money away. Or maybe you’re under external pressure. All of these and more are valid reasons to dig in your heels and finish what you started.

The trouble comes when you find yourself doing more than you can handle. Especially for students new to university life, it’s not easy to predict how you’ll feel when the dust settles and the work picks up. You’ll know you’ve reached this point when your anxiety and depression is at an all-time high, the walls are closing in, and all you want to do is quit. I’m here to tell you that there’s a second option: not quitting, and instead using this as an opportunity for personal growth. If that sounds awful, keep reading! I’ll try to make it more enticing.

It’s worth noting that it doesn’t matter how much you’re actually doing — it could be six classes or one. What matters is that it’s too much for you, but you’re determined to rise to the challenge anyway. Here are some tips for coping with feeling overwhelmed.

1.   Know what you’re signing up for

This was something I understood in theory going in to an overwhelming semester, but it wasn’t until it really kicked off that I understood it in practice. You need to be brutally honest with yourself along the way about how much you’re capable of doing. If your workload is beyond your capability, you need to unload some weight or commit to pushing yourself and accepting the physical, mental, and emotional pain that will come with that. Failing to do this, you will find yourself making compromises you shouldn’t and bad decisions that cannot be reversed.

2.   If you need help, GET help

This may have been the lesson that was hardest for me to learn. In my stubbornness and exhaustion, I did not use any of the resources that were available to me to improve my results. If you’re struggling mentally (which you will) and you need an academic concession or deferral, you’d better get to Counselling Services ASAP. Concessions are not awarded to students that show up on the doorstep the first day of finals week. You must have a case file from a professional to demonstrate an actual need to be “bailed out” (which is not really what a concession is, but it’s the closest thing). I’m a huge hypocrite for saying this, but you must take advantage of resources available to you in order to do your best.

3.   Stay organized, mindful, and healthy

These three are a cycle of sorts. If you stay on top of your obligations — use your phone calendar, a planner, a bullet journal, I don’t care — you will be more mindful (I would recommend meditation apps like Headspace and Insight Timer to further explore this term), and therefore healthier. On the physical level, if you get more sleep (seven to nine hours is non-negotiable — just ask Dr. Matthew Walker) and maintain your body, staying organized will be much easier.

There is a paradox here. By definition, if you’re truly pushing yourself, you won’t have control over these things all the time. But if you’re a human wreck because of your workload, then something is wrong. Your humanity on all levels is the most important aspect of being alive. If you can’t take five courses and still at least somewhat meet the above criteria, you can’t take five courses. End of discussion.

4.   Intrinsic motivation

We’ve touched on pressure from family, professors, and especially ourselves as being reasons to bite off more than you can chew. Amidst this extrinsic motivation, the most important thing you must feel is intrinsic motivation — you need to have a solid reason for doing this. It needs to bring a result that will truly make you happier. You need to remember this reason when things get tough. This reason needs to carry you through that pain.

Which brings me to my worst-tasting but most important piece of advice…

5.   Trust the process

I’m sure we’ve all heard it and even use it jokingly, but it could not be more true.

If you wake up and say to yourself “I’ll do it tomorrow,” you have already lost your trust in your process before even getting out of bed. When things get tough, or start to hurt, you must do them anyway. Put on your running shoes. Go to class. Write that first sentence. Go through the motions. Embrace the discomfort. Put down this newspaper and do that thing you’re supposed to do right now. I don’t care how cold it is (it’s not cold in Victoria), how anxious you are (see suggestion number 2), or how pointless that assignment seems (it’s not). I promise you that trusting the process will bring you infinitely less pain than the “relief” of not doing it. It’s in going through those painful moments that the real growth begins.

Why are you qualified to tell me these things, Dante?

It’s not inaccurate to say that 2018/2019 was the worst school year of my life. After a summer of working three jobs, I was set to take seven courses per semester of pure busywork so that I could spend the final year of my undergrad focusing on things I actually care about. This sounded like a great idea at the time, but it brought upon me challenges I never imagined. For example: Quitting one job before school, I tried to keep the other two. At the end of September, I gave up the second and lost the third a week later. One month after that, I crashed my car. For the whole second term, I was out of money (but thankfully had a lot of support there).

However, I also grew my work capacity and pushed my personal limits more than I ever have before. And although I didn’t get amazing grades and it sometimes feels like I spun my wheels for a year, I wouldn’t change anything. I finished what I started, and I hope that by sharing some things I picked up along the way, you can too.