Mind & Body

Under Pressure


As of this fall, I’ve been teaching English at universities for 31 years. That’s a lot of fall semesters to have under your belt–a lot of back-to-school energy and saying goodbye to the slow rhythms of summer, a lot of getting your footing with new students and remembering how to do your job after a long break. So while I hesitate to say this is the most stressful fall semester I’ve ever had, I’m confident that it makes the Top 10.

When I mentioned this to one of my classes last week, several students nodded in agreement. Perhaps there’s something in the air. Or some kind of cosmic convergence. (We did just have a total eclipse, after all; maybe there’s some weird post-eclipse energy floating around.) But even without those forces in play, I’d be able to identify several factors that are creating all kinds of pressure for me right now.

Like what, you ask?

Hurricane Harvey. The predicted storm track brought Harvey further inland than he ultimately moved (much to our relief.) But my university wisely decided to shut down the campus for the Friday before and Monday after Harvey’s predicted arrival. It was the right decision, but it threw a wrench into everyone’s semester plan. And, because Labor Day was the following week, that meant some of my colleagues didn’t meet their Monday-only classes until the fourth week of the semester.

So, yeah. Harvey left us all a little discombobulated.

Time. Last spring, I was elected to a 3-year term on our Faculty Executive Committee. That means I’m Vice-Chair of the Faculty Association this year. The primary role of Vice-Chair, as far as I can tell, is to serve as a liaison between the Executive Committee and various other university committees. What this means is that I spend a lot of time in meetings. That’s time I would ordinarily spend on preparing for my classes. Or grading student work. Or meeting with students to address their concerns.

All of that still needs to happen, of course. Now it’s just crammed in around the edges of everything else. Time is most definitely not on my side right now.

Health. When I saw my endocrinologist for my annual checkup, I learned that my level of thyroid hormone was way too high. My white blood cell count, however, was lower than ever. (It’s often been a little low, but this time it was low enough to be a cause for concern.) Those two things went a long way toward explaining some of the weird symptoms I’d been dealing with.

We addressed the first issue by adjusting my thyroid medication. Then I took a course of antibiotics, just to make sure I wasn’t battling a low-grade infection. But mostly I’m addressing the low white count by rededicating myself to a gluten-free diet. That’s the only thing that has ever improved my white count even slightly. When I’m not sticking to it, the proof is indisputable.

Why is that a source of pressure? Because it’s really, really hard to stay gluten-free. Nearly every kind of processed food includes wheat, and processed gluten-free alternatives are expensive. So I’m doing more cooking from scratch, which means more careful grocery shopping. All of that takes more time and creates more pressure on a daily basis.

So what’s a woman under pressure to do?

I’ve been trying to implement some specific strategies to offset the stress I’m feeling these days.

One of the things I’m doing is protect my quiet time. I often make my commute to work (yet another source of pressure) without the radio on, so I can start getting my brain focused on the day ahead. Now I’m making the commute home in silence as well, most of the time. The silence helps me decompress after a long day of talking and listening to others–and it makes the driving less stressful, too. Once I get home, if I’m the first one in the house, I keep the TV turned off. Silence seems to help my brain stretch out and relax.

I’m also making time for meditative hobbies, like crochet. When I’m sitting around the house in the evening, I pick up the project I’m working on and add a few rows, at least. Forcing myself to focus on something small and specific–something that requires my full attention–is an excellent way of calming the high-pressure voice in my head that’s telling me to check my email just in case some sort of crisis has arisen. It also keeps me away from my laptop, where a virtual pile of papers waiting to be graded lurks, and my phone, which brings me the news that often raises my blood pressure.

Finally, I’m designating non-work hours. Being a professor is the sort of job that can very easily take over your whole life. Because our hours are flexible, and because universities don’t shut down completely at 5:00, any hour of the day has the potential to be a work hour. So I’m putting some parts of the week completely off limits. This leaves time for other projects (like writing this blog) and creates some built-in balance.


One of the best (and worst) parts about getting older is the knowledge that time passes by us so quickly. That means I know, for better or worse, even a high-pressure semester like this one will be over before too long.

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