Life’s a Great Balancing Act

As a teenager, it can be challenging to juggle every responsibility. I know I frequently feel like I’m walking on a balance beam, ready to tip at any moment. For my Capstone project last year I researched the importance of a healthy school-life balance. There are multiple studies about the effects of an imbalance between work and life in adults, but very little about that in students. From waking up early to get to school, learning for 6 hours, rushing to a sports practice or club meeting, getting home only to do homework for multiple hours, going to sleep, and doing it all again the next day, it can be hard to find a moment to breathe. And with all the technological advancements that are integrated into school, it is becoming increasingly difficult to escape. When you’re not at school or doing homework, you’re getting Remind texts and Google Classroom notifications and emails and pretty much any way a teacher is able to contact you, they’ll try to. This leads to a toxic mentality of always feeling like you need to be “on.”  Even more so now, with online learning, I can imagine finding the balance between school and life will be overwhelmingly difficult since you’re forced to fulfil all your roles from your house, unable to decipher between the different aspects of life. 

Even when you’re not actively receiving notifications, there is always that feeling of anticipation in the back of your mind feeding into the constant need to be “on” and increasing anxiety within students. William Becker, a Virginia Tech associate professor, discovered students do not need to actually be doing work in the off-hours to experience the negative effects, “the mere expectations of availability increase strain” which “triggers feelings of anxiety and endangers work and personal lives” (Ho). When our parents were in school, at the end of each day they left the building and their communication with their teachers was cut off. The teachers couldn’t remind their students of a test the next day or add an additional assignment to the homework. If they wanted to reach the students, they had to wait until the next day. For us, however, this communication does not end when the school day does. Sure there is convenience in this, but do the detriments outweigh the benefits?

 In regards specifically to mental health, a study was conducted that measured people’s cortisol awakening response (CAR) which helps quantify stress level, and was used to determine how extended work hours affect a person’s cognitive-emotional outcomes, or moods. Start-of-day mood in particular directly correlates to a person’s performance during the day. Results from the study made it abundantly clear that “the participants consistently reported less energetic arousal, valence, and calmness on days with extended availability requirements,” and demonstrated a steeper increase in the CAR (Dettmers). This study was done on adults who occasionally have to be available for their employer outside of the work day. For students, however, this is every day. The same study measured how well these employees were able to recover from the stress induced by extended work availability. They reported having “less psychological detachment” and a “lack of boundary control” these days (Dettmers). This increase in stress levels causes performance to weaken and can quickly result in burnout.

Something that I continuously struggle with is convincing myself that it is okay to take a break. You don’t have to be “always on”; allow yourself to turn off Google Classroom notifications and step away from school work. I constantly get overwhelmed and tell myself I “don’t have enough time to take a break,” but in reality not taking a break is making my work quality worse and thus making me work longer. Breaks are necessary. Especially this school year, try not to get stuck in the habit of staying in your room all day– waking up, getting ready, going to online school, doing homework– there’s really no obvious need to leave your room. But, you need to. Go on a walk, play with your dog, take a drive, any way to disconnect from the world of school and give your brain a break.

In addition, this need to be “always on” greatly affects our sleep quality. We all already don’t get enough sleep, but the need to be “on” during “off-hours” dampers with the minimal sleep that we do get. William Becker, mentioned above, conducted a survey on employees to determine the effect of checking off-hours emails on sleep. The survey found that “frequent monitoring or higher expectations to monitor” caused stress and anxiety which contributed to poor sleep quality and “interferes with biological and social rhythms needed for recovery” (“How After-Hours Emails Might Hurt Your Health”).  I am currently reading “Why We Sleep” by Matthew Walker, which has helped me recognize the true importance of sleep. Of course, it is near impossible to consistently get the recommended 8 hours of sleep, there’s simply not enough hours in the day, but one of the most daunting things that stood out to me in the book is that, “regardless of the amount of recovery opportunity, the brain never comes close to getting back all the sleep that it has lost” (Walker). Then, there are the numerous health effects (both mental and physical) that come along with this. If you want to learn more about the neuroscience behind sleep and all the studies that have been conducted in order to understand its importance, I strongly recommend this book. If that doesn’t interest you, however, the bottom line is that sleep is tremendously important for brain function and you should try to get the recommended quality and quantity.

That is certainly easier said than done, however. It is so easy to get wrapped up in homework, “just one more hour of studying,” soon turns into three and before you know it the sun is coming up and it’s time to get ready and do it all over again. But, there are some simple steps that can be taken in order to improve your sleep quality. It has been proven that “every time you check your email or glance at your phone to see if you have an email or other communication, your brain actually shifts back to work mode” (Ahmed-Haq). So, I challenge you to set a time each night that you cut-off this constant school communication. No more checking SIS, responding to emails, refreshing Google Classroom, etc. Ideally, you’d also set a time to completely stop school work for the night, but I know that wouldn’t last more than a day. 

With school being online, just continue to be conscientious of your body and mind. Take breaks when you need them, give yourself grace, and don’t feel like you need to take on every task (it’s okay to say no, within reason). There will never be a perfect balance between school and the other aspects of your life, but try your best not to lean too heavily to one side or the other to the point where you’re stumbling over. Since mental health is not something you can easily “see,” it is natural to disregard its importance and push it to the back burner in order to fulfil other responsibilities, but remember the most important things in life are those you can’t see. 

“So be sure when you step,

step with care and great tact.

And remember that Life’s

a Great Balancing Act”

Dr. Seuss, Oh, The Places You’ll Go!

Ahmed-Haq, Rubina. “After-work Emails Cause Stress, Even If You Don’t Open Them.” CBC Canada, 28 Sept. 2018, www.cbc.ca/news/canada/after-work-emails-cause-stress-and -impact-relationships-1.4841620. Accessed 11 Mar. 2020. 

Dettmers, Jan, et al. “Extended Work Availability and Its Relation with Start-of-Day Mood and Cortisol.” Journal of Occupational Health Psychology , vol. 21, no. 1, 2016, pdfs.sema nticscholar.org/d5b4/d8230792dba4f6bb03c030e80ab6c5f0eea6.pdf. Accessed 9 Mar. 2020.

“How After-Hours Emails Might Hurt Your Health.” Association for Psychology Science, 10 Jan. 2017, www.psychologicalscience.org/news/minds-business/how-afterhours%20- emails-might-hurt-your-health.html. Accessed 11 Mar. 2020. 

Walker, Matthew P. Why We Sleep: Unlocking the Power of Sleep and Dreams. Scribner, an     Imprint of Simon & Schuster, Inc., 2018.

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