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When control becomes destructive

Amanda Peña | Wednesday, October 16, 2013

As students attending one of the most prestigious universities in the country, we tirelessly attempt to find balance among classes, exercise, work, papers, projects, extracurricular activities and a social life. It is very easy to get caught up in deadlines and stress, so last week’s Irish State of Mind provided the student body with a variety of opportunities to reflect on mental health issues and the importance of self-care.

In the previous weeks I neglected regular sleep and meals to push my body to its absolute limits, so I spent Mental Health Awareness Week sick in bed. Unfortunately, many students also experienced a failing immune system; I would bet that most were stressing themselves out in the weeks leading up to their illness, too. While the type-A personalities of most Notre Dame students have contributed to the creation of a demanding, hardworking culture driven toward success, these same extremist and perfectionist behaviors could also be an Achilles’ heel, and I will be the first to admit that.

A day in the life of an average college student typically includes frequent coffee or caffeinated beverages, minimal rest and constant movement from one activity to the next. I am no stranger to this lifestyle. I attempted to balance three jobs, 18 credits, boxing practices, writing for The Observer and a few leadership roles on top of my daily, personal stresses about bills, my family and my own life. I was averaging about four hours of sleep per night and developed potentially fatal cardiovascular reactions to caffeine. I didn’t have time to see my friends and stayed in every weekend because I had too much work. (I was barely keeping up with the mounds of readings and assignments my professors assigned in the syllabi.) I began to skip meals for catnaps and eat between walks to classes. I knew I was heading down a dangerous road, but I was convinced I could do it all. I was unstoppable. I had it under control.

Control, my arch nemesis. I have a problem of always needing to be in control – over my diet, schedule, details, planning, etc. It’s a deceptive possession because I will more often than not think I am in control of my life, when I am in fact being controlled and consumed by the aspects I am simply trying to have control over. Every time I play with this double-edged sword, I find myself regressing from my goals toward success because I end up spending more energy trying to make up for the sleep and meals I deprived myself of.

When I step into the ring with Control, I keep thinking I’m winning the round, when in actuality I’m fighting a losing battle. Each stressor I add to my life becomes one more round I have to gather the energy to last through. Eventually someone has to emerge victorious, and last week I was bloodied, and the fight ended early. A lack of sleep and nourishment weakened my immune system over the course of the semester, so once I got a viral infection, I experienced my first real gut-check. This week, I am beginning the slow recovery process but have fallen so far behind in my courses and work that I will need to spend almost all of fall break catching up.

The bright side to being sick was the time it gave me to reflect and analyze my behaviors that made my immune system give out on me. I let deep-rooted control issues that stemmed from an eating disorder long ago creep back into my daily life. I ignored my body’s screams for respite, I punished it with excessive exercise, and starved it to write a paper or read for a quiz. A few weeks into the semester, I admitted to one of my best friends that I was beginning to worry about my health because I noticed eating disorder tendencies returning. Thankfully, I have gained control over the problem again, but I fear this tug-of-war will continue to reenter my life as long as I focus on control and not on my well-being.

A healthy mentality is the lifeline for every action you will perform. Negative attitudes and obsessive behaviors will eventually grow into a monster you no longer can seize control over. I take comfort though in knowing I am not the only person on this campus who struggles with control or the reality that perfectionism is unattainable. It is important to seek help from friends or professionals when you notice yourself slipping from your obligations to take care of yourself. The UCC and UHS offer services to students to help them with time-management, stress, counseling, etc. Don’t wait until your body fails you to realize the importance of self-care!

Amanda Peña is a junior sustainable  development studies major with a poverty studies minor. She can be contacted at [email protected]

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.