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Spring 2012 Columnist headshots Credit: Justin Cohen , Kyle Henson

What we heard in high school about the choice we face in college — “sleep, friends, grades: pick two” — no longer seems to apply.

Penn students not only expect themselves to balance all three of these prerequisites, many take on extracurricular commitments that collectively take up more time than the original trinity.

In many ways, we expect ourselves to be superhuman. What seemed like a simple dichotomy has morphed into something far more alarming.

Penn students tend to stress — a lot. We stress over everything from our coursework to how we’re perceived by our peers (see Daily Pennsylvanian columns, Facing the fear of missing out or A case for the lone luncher for insightful discussion of this often absurd obsession).

In fact, we stress so much that Penn earned the not-so-admissions-brochure-happy distinction of being ranked the fourth most stressful college nationally. This ranking, compiled by The Daily Beast, cites academic competition and rigor along with financial cost as the major sources of stress.

Most students’ experiences attest to the ranking but it’s far too simplistic to blame the University for the stress we feel. While much stress comes from the pressure to excel academically, a large portion of it is ultimately self-inflicted.

It would be naive to think that the obnoxious type-A personalities that helped many of us get here in the first place disappeared after our matriculation.

This has left some of us — myself included — with a false and often dangerous sense of lacking limits. Whether this manifests in planning one’s day to the hour or pursuing seven-credit course loads, many students take on more than they should handle.

Consciously and unconsciously, many Penn students are attracted to high-stress environments precisely because they know they’ll thrive. Some put off writing papers or studying for exams until the absolute last minute, knowing that only then will they work efficiently.

So the idea that all stress is bad certainly does not hold true. Instead of trying to eliminate it, we should embrace stress and think of creative ways to use it to our advantage.

Yoga, acupuncture or Spring Fling may seem like perfect solutions to our stress but they are far too short-term.

While Pottruck and Student Health provide some of these services, College junior and Student Health Advisory Board member Matthew Byrne realizes that “learning to manage stress is the real solution.”

To gain a better understanding of this, SHAB is currently conducting a survey meant to ascertain what stresses Penn kids and what they do about it.

Counseling and Psychological Services is also working to learn more about the underlying causes of stress. Over the past few years, CAPS has held focus groups with freshmen in an effort to understand how it can best utilize its resources.

CAPS Director William Alexander said he “came away with two things: one of the enemies of stress is organization and the second is really positive social connections.”

In order to institutionalize some of CAPS’ findings, iComm, a stress-management workshop, is being piloted in three predominantly freshman college houses. The program aims to systematically teach stress-management skills many Penn students simply never learned.

“It’s kind of naive to try to eliminate stress at Penn,” Alexander added. iComm, rather, aims to emphasize the importance of “organization and non-directive support from peers to serve as empathetic friends in time of stress.”

iComm seems perfectly targeted to teach students how to effectively approach the challenge of stress while acknowledging its motivating potential.

As long as we maintain busy schedules, stress will remain ubiquitous on campus.

In the next two weeks, we’ll transition from the socially stressful time of Fling toward the academically stressful time of finals. Instead of trying to get rid of stress, we should treat it as a finite asset that deserves thoughtful allocation.

Kyle Henson is a College junior from Harrisburg, Pa. His email address is The Logical Skeptic appears every other Tuesday.

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