Photo courtesy of the author

For me, stress at Cambridge has always been quantifiable, rising and falling in rough correlation with the number of words I have due within the week. Sometimes the formula is complicated by social plans or extracurricular commitments, but how I feel is always understandable, straight-forward. According to this logic I should be much less stressed during this strange, housebound Easter term. But despite the lack of social pressures, the loosening of deadlines, and the generous adaptation of exam rhetoric, I am more stressed than I ever was at Cambridge. 

The stress has been sneaky and unplaceable. Until my body physically demonstrated it to me, I didn’t realise it was there. I caught myself staring into space for huge swathes of study time whilst my foot-tapping reached new speeds, I burst out crying at a soppy Virgin Media advert (despite knowing that Richard Branson sued the NHS), I lost patience with my family too easily, I struggled to sleep. In parallel with monitoring this development of my own inner landscape, I watched news anchors report the mental health crisis which was unfolding nationwide. Lengthy think-pieces were published which attempted to diagnose the population and, whilst many of their explanations and suggestions applied to me, I also wanted to figure out the specifics of our context: why exactly can doing the Cambridge Tripos at home be so disorienting?

“Time-management is another aspect of home-working liable to cause bewilderment”

One of the reasons that Tripos can be just as, if not more, stressful outside of the pressure-cooker of Cambridge is the absence of understanding peers. Grumbling together is part and parcel of university life: it is perfectly acceptable to describe your relatively minor problems as “crises” and you can be certain that even your most trivial worries will be received with sympathy. This catharsis isn’t available in the outside world. For example, I’m never sure that my complaints about my huge reading list are received in the same way at home. After all, I choose to read for pleasure whenever I’m taking a break from trying to pin down the meaning of an elusive philosophical manifesto. One minute my favourite past-time, the next the bane of my existence. It isn’t a completely coherent attitude. 

Time-management is another aspect of home-working liable to cause bewilderment. At university, working late into the night was a social activity imbued with a powerful sense of solidarity and mutual comprehension. But working unsociable hours at home is just that: unsociable. However much support my family gives me, I will always be aware of how conspicuous and sometimes inconvenient my efforts are. 

For me personally, the safety net has caused additional overthinking. I think it’s an absolutely essential and comforting measure: it’s reassuring to know that I could do much less work than usual and achieve a grade I would be proud of in a normal exam term. Nonetheless, given the slight chance that my grade could improve, I intend to work as hard as I can. I know I would regret it if I didn’t. It’s been a strange thing to get my head around; the formerly black-and-white connection between how hard I work and what I achieve has disintegrated. My mark will only change if I perform extremely well, and I have much less of an idea exactly what “extremely well” entails given that the exams are now openbook and the quality of our responses will be, presumably, much higher.

On top of that, the lack of the fun aspects of Cambridge has lessened the appeal of hard work. Generally speaking, I always managed to strike an effective (albeit precarious) balance between work and play, and in the month before exams, I would see stress as something I could manipulate and exploit. I envied but ignored the few friends I had who worked neat 9-5s in the University Library, instead choosing to fetishize overworking and romanticise my own stress as a badge of honour. I would refuse to schedule regular breaks, listen to podcasts relevant to my papers during grocery runs, and fall asleep with vocabulary lists. This lifestyle was unsustainable: I slept too little, spent too much on take-out, and probably did years’ worth of damage to my posture in the month I spent bent over library desks. The motivation to briefly live this way found its source in my strange logic that (a) the dangling carrot of post-exam hedonism would taste sweeter if my pre-exam life was more exhausting and therefore the contrast was greater, and (b) the idea that I had to earn the Netflix binges and day-drinking that I looked forward to after exams.

“Testing my limits doesn’t have the same appeal when all I’m “earning” is a job search in the midst of a global pandemic”

That system doesn’t work anymore — testing my limits doesn’t have the same appeal when all I’m “earning” is a job search in the midst of a global pandemic. Instead, I’ve been prematurely forced to learn how to self-motivate when there isn’t a white-tie ball to daydream about during concentration lapses. I've had to learn how to balance toil with small rewards on a daily, rather than termly, basis. Perhaps unsurprisingly, it took a period of total inconsistency for me to develop truly sustainable working habits. 


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Of course, these factors are outside of the University’s control. I’m incredibly impressed by the preparation which has ensured that this term is as normal as possible. I am also incredibly grateful for the support of my family. Nonetheless, I think talking about the unexpected aspects of our experience as much as possible can bring comfort. Additionally, debunking the expectation that less work necessarily means less stress could bring us to the point at which we healthily and curiously acknowledge our real reactions to our strange situation.

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