Today, I wanted to share an interview I did recently with Arnav Gupta, a friend of mine and peer. In this interview, him and I discuss how academic pressure has been a major source of stress for him, and the resources and coping strategies that he has used to help him improve his mental health. 

Sharad:  

Yeah, I guess I’ll ask you about that later, but yeah. So yeah, just to give you a heads up, I’m recording this just so I can write it up later. And yeah, you don’t have to respond to every question, you can, I know you said you don’t mind if I put your name on it, but I don’t have to. 

Arnav:  

Okay.

Sharad:  

Okay. Yeah. So basically this blog I write goes on this mental health volunteer organization’s website called Alonesy. The main thing they do is have an app where they connect people struggling with mental health to mentors. But then they also have a blog that I think me and two other people work on that’s cool. So I’ve written three blogs so far that are on there. And then yeah, so I was just going to interview you kind of ask you some questions about school, mental health, and you obviously, you don’t have to answer any of the questions you don’t want to answer. And yeah, just, you can say whatever you want to. Do you have any questions about the organization or about the interview in general?

Arnav:  

No, I don’t think so. I just, I hope what I say helps or whatever you needed for,

Sharad:  

Oh, I’m sure it will. I mean, the whole, I think the whole point of this volunteer organization is to kind of give student primarily younger people, struggling with mental health, someone to like peers to talk to and experiences to relate to, instead of just, you know, kind of like a therapy approach where it’s kind of like someone telling you all these different things, it’s kind of like learning from other people’s experiences. So yeah, just to start off, like, what major are you, what year in school are you?

Arnav:  

Yeah, so I’m a junior in electrical engineering right now.

Sharad:  

Very nice. Just to kind of get to know you a little better, what are some of your favorite hobbies? Obviously, I know these things, but what are some things you do to relax and unwind?

Arnav: 

Hobby wise, I love boxing, and I love jujitsu. As far as relaxation stuff goes, I like to watch TV in my free time, read some books, you know, just general things like that.

Sharad: 

Yeah, so now I am going to get into the academic side of things. And yeah, once again, you don’t have to answer all of these, you can pick and choose which one of these questions you want to answer and the degree you want to answer them. At what point in your life did academics become stressful for you?

Arnav:  

Let’s see the earliest I can really remember. I see, like even the, the furthest back I can remember is like third grade. So honestly, like, I think even that I would get stressed out about it.

Sharad:  

Wow. Do you have a specific example? Where you remember you being stressed out.

Arnav: 

Yeah. I remember we used to do these like multiplication charts, where they were like timed in a minute. You had to do a bunch of questions or something. And like everyone in class competed. And I was trying to do perfect. Like I didn’t want to get a single one wrong, but I also wanted to like see everyone else in the class. So I would get stressed out about making sure I was beating everyone and doing the best and like making sure I was getting a perfect score on it and stuff. I also did Kumon. I don’t know if you’ve ever heard of it.

Arnav:  

Yeah. I figured you had. Just as a short description, it’s like an accelerated learning program or like a supplemental learning program outside of school that you do mainly at like a younger age and it’s just like help you get ahead. I did a lot of math in English through Kumon and so those would also stress me out because like the math I was doing in Kumon was nothing like this math I was doing in school, but my parents still taught me to do well in the Kumon stuff. They were paying money and they signed me up for it. So that would also stress me out all of that. Not necessarily school. I still consider it academics. 

Sharad:  

Yes. Sorry, were you going to say something?

Arnav:  

No, I was just gonna say, yeah, I think that’s the earliest I can remember at least.

Sharad:  

Yeah, for sure. So that leads me into my next question. Do you, it seems like, or at least early on, do you feel like the academic pressure, you feel yourself putting that stress or is it your family or was it your family stressing the importance of academic excellence and then you kind of taking that importance to yourself and now it’s you holding that?

Arnav: 

Yeah. Was that like back then, or kind of now you’re talking about with that, like over time, you know?

Sharad:  

Okay. Like, I mean back then, I would definitely guess mostly the parents. And then over time, maybe you feel it for yourself more, but yeah, I guess, I don’t know.

Arnav:  

Maybe a little timeline for that. So back in that early memory, like lower school, elementary school type stuff, I would say that was really all my parents. Like I don’t think it really mattered to me as much, but I definitely think it did more for them. Even in middle school, it was still definitely like, it was basically all my parents at that point. I was honestly kind of just like, at that point I was kind of being rebellious and I was just not a good kid. I got in a lot of fights. I was still doing a lot of school stuff, and I was still doing really well in school because my parents were forcing me to, I didn’t care about it at all, like at all. And then but then like my parents kinda stopped putting pressure on me in high school. Cause I think they honestly kind of gave up on me a little bit in that sense. Cause they were just like, alright, like clearly like nothing we’re doing is working, like we’re just gonna let him do his own thing and like figure it out. But then I started to put a lot of pressure on myself because I think it was just kind of like built into me from what my parents had put on me. And so I just got used to having a standard of excellence for myself, but that only, that really only kicked in like junior year of highschool, junior year is when I started really, really stressing myself out for school. But I still had freshman and sophomore year a little bit, but not as much as junior year when I started to really put a lot of my pressure on myself to have absolutely perfect grades.

Sharad:  

Yeah. And do you feel, I guess this might be a little tricky to assess, but do you know how much of that stress was beneficial and helping you do well? And then how much of that do you think was harmful and actually prevented you from doing well or hurt you in more ways than helped?

Arnav:  

I would say just taking the junior year example, I’ll say 40% helpful, 60% harmful. It was just stress that got me stressed out. But then over time that percentage of it being useful has vastly decreased. Like right now, like my current mental state, that anxiety probably helps me out maybe not even like 5%, and the rest of it is just completely unhelpful and honestly makes everything worse and makes me do worse in school.

Sharad:  

Yeah. so that was my next question. How much do you think you attribute your self-worth to your academic success?

Arnav:  

This is getting a little bit into like my own mental state with things, but like mentally like, or logically, I know that my grades don’t make me and my worth, but in my heart, what I feel, I still attribute grades like largely like my self sense of self-worth depends largely on it because like before this semester, it has been four years since I’ve got like anything under than an A- . So it becomes like your standard almost like if you don’t fulfill that standard, like you feel less of a person, you feel, you don’t feel yourself, even though it’s not true at all, but that’s how I feel.

Sharad:  

Yeah. I know. I mean, I think it’s also partially a factor of you’re spending all this time and you’re stressing over it so much and you’re working so hard. It’s hard to separate yourself from your academic performance if that’s what you’re spending, you know, 60 to 70 hours a week.

Arnav:  

No, I totally agree. Yeah.

Sharad:  

Yeah. 

Arnav:  

You’ll see this really, especially in the engineering department, at least like the people I hang around my electrical engineering department, like everyone’s like always talking about grades and stuff. And so you start to think about grades more because everyone else is also talking about grades. Grades are always on your mind.

Sharad:  

Yeah. But I mean, I guess that was my next question. Like how much at school, specifically, how much of the environment do you think helps you push yourself versus it’s just too, you know, too hyper focused on grades and creates too much anxiety, but I guess you kind of already talked about it, but if there’s anything more you want to say, go ahead.

Arnav:  

Yeah, I think because in particular we both go to Tufts, and Tufts does a relatively decent job of supporting students. But I still think schooling in general, in this country is way too oriented towards grades. Cause that’s all that like people ever see is the grades. Like I think that is why a pass fail kind of system should somehow be adopted to like all colleges. So people don’t have to worry about grades and making the focus on learning. But I think like, yeah, I think the environment, especially like college and especially like in engineering, at least that, I mean, that’s all I can speak of is engineering departments I’ve only ever been in the engineering department, but especially in the engineering department, like they really focus on grades. Like everyone’s always talking about grades and grad school and it is too heavy of a focus I think. And I think it definitely contributes. So the result is a negative attitude with grades and mental health and stuff.

Sharad:  

I guess my next question was going to be, in terms of your mental health, how much, how do you think, I guess good mental health, bad mental health? How much do you think as a percentage is dominated by academic related stress?

Arnav:  

All right. I mean, look, this past semester is honestly a perfect example of it. I was literally having like, even all my happy days, I was still having two panic attacks about something related to school on bad days. It got anywhere up to like four.

Sharad:  

I’m sorry. It is. That’s awful. I guess I hope no, I hope it’s getting better. And I guess that’s the next question in ways. Do you think you have improved in dealing with academic pressure? In what ways do you plan on continuing to improve? Yeah, that’s my next one.

Arnav:  

As far as the actual improvements, like honestly this past semester I didn’t improve at all. Like nothing, no improvements were made this past semester as far as like me in grades. Cause it just stressed me out more and more, but it actually resulted in me having to take, like I had to take three of my classes pass, fail actually, because like, I knew that if I took the files for those classes, that I was going to end up in the hospital. I knew at that point that my mental health is so bad that I knew that if I had tried to complete my finals, something bad was going to happen. And so I was like, I can’t do it. And so I talked to the people at Tufts, so we figured out a way to get some pass, fail stuff happening that I won’t have to, I didn’t have to take any finals, which I’m really grateful for. I’m currently in an outpatient program for mental health, I’m hoping it will help. It hasn’t really helped too much yet, but I’ve only been in it for a couple of days and it’s like, so we’ll so we’ll see how it goes. I’m also hoping that since I pass-failed three classes, I’m hoping that’ll internally break the ice of being like a perfect student or having a perfect GPA or having like the perfect set of grades that are all A- and A’s because now there’s other things on there besides those a minuses and A’s, so I’m hoping next semester won’t feel like I’m holding onto perfection. I’m taking a slightly lighter class load next semester. So I’m hoping that’ll help too, honestly, like not really much as of yet. So we’ll see.

Sharad:  

I mean, I guess even if you haven’t even, I know, you know, there’s some semesters that are harder and that it might feel worse, but do you have like a, I guess maybe a thing or two that you’ve learned through going through this, that like, like when you take that step back, like, oh, I need to do this in order to stay mentally healthy next semester. 

Arnav:  

Honestly, like I will say one thing that I learned was that I definitely needed to get medication for use. Like I needed some anti-anxiety medication. I need some sleeping medication. I need some sort of antidepressant. So that was a pretty big realization for me that I got on. I’ve had to change a lot of doses, so they haven’t been as effective as they normally would be, but I’m hoping they’ll get more effective as I take them more regularly and everything. Another moment was when I realized about my panic attacks. I think I used to really try to shut down my panic attacks as quickly as possible and try to hop back into work. I think I’ve recognized now that like my panic attacks get pretty bad so that I need to, like when I have one, I really need to take a step back and like give myself at least like 15 to 30 minutes to take a break from whatever I’m looking at and like calm myself down, take a break, maybe watch a YouTube video or something. Really just try to relax and then reset and then try again.

Sharad:  

No, that’s good. Okay. Let’s see. If you were to give one or two pieces of advice for someone struggling to balance their wellbeing or mental health with academic pressure and success, what would you, what would you get?

Arnav:  

I would say literally nothing in this world comes before your own health, nothing ever,  like at the end of the day, all you can really, really say for sure is that you can take care of yourself. So do it. Put that first and everything else I think will be better in your life. Even if you don’t have the perfect GPA that you look for, you’ll baseline be happier. And that’s way more important than any grade to like employers and stuff. They don’t really care as much about grades as people think they do as people think they do. Like as long as you just focus on being healthy and happy that you’re learning stuff, and be grateful that you’re learning stuff, and just try to focus on your health first and then focus on academics, nothing else in life should really take precedence over your health.I think that’s been really hard and I know I can just say that, but, and it’s a hard thing to enact, but yes, I think you have to keep telling yourself that, and I’m hoping like that’s what I’m doing. I’m trying to keep telling myself that. And I’m hoping that I’ll believe it one day. You know, I hope in my heart that I’ll genuinely feel that and I’ll always put my health before academics and other stuff, but we’re simply just not here long enough on this earth to really put academics before mental health and just health in general. Because like that’s all you can really do is make sure you’re healthy and do your best to remain healthy. You can never, you can never ever guarantee academic success. You can study as hard as possible. You can spend endless countless hours into the night, studying and studying both ends of the day. You never know what your teacher’s going to put on that exam, or you never know if you’re got that calm fully, right. Or not. You never truly know until you like until you get the assignment or whatever back, but you can always know that you always have the ability to take care of yourself. You always have the ability to put yourself first. It is the one thing in life that we can actually control. So do it, take control of it as best as you can. 

Sharad:  

I mean, that sounds, I think you’ve said it perfectly, and I hope you start to believe it too.

Arnav:  

All I can do is work forward. That’s all.

Sharad:  

Yeah. I guess I’m sure boxing probably helps relieve some of the stress you know, hanging out, seeing family hanging out with friends. Yeah, I guess typical coping strategies. Yeah. Is there anything else you want to add about any part of your journey or any part of anything that you’re continuing to do now that you think would help someone going through anything similar to you?

Arnav:  

Yeah, I’m sure a lot of people have heard this, but just in case like people who are coming into your blog, like the first time, it could be the first time that they’re dealing with mental health issues. Remember it’s an illness, it’s as much of an illness as like getting the flu or getting COVID for instance, or breaking your arm. Go see a doctor for it, go see a therapist and try to find one you like, and if you need medication, don’t be ashamed to take it. There’s no shame in taking it. Your body, your brain is literally not functioning. Normally that’s what the medication is there to fix to get it functioning on normal levels. So you can at least be competing on an even playing field with everyone else. It helps you get the proper help you need and that you’re just being fair to yourself. You’re not being unfair to other people. You’re not being weak. All you’re really doing is being fair to yourself and giving yourself equal opportunities to everyone else who doesn’t have the mental health problems or who doesn’t struggle with those kinds of things. So don’t ever be ashamed for taking medication or seeking help or needing a therapist or anything like that. Never be ashamed of it.

Blog Post By Sharad Mahajan

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