On the cellular level, we are programmed to respond to stress. Our cells sense and respond to their environment. Signaling molecules — like the hormones circulating in your bloodstream — bind to the membrane receptors of their target cells and deliver cellular instructions. Notably, a cell can alter its response to a particular molecular signal. When a cell is bombarded by signal molecules for a prolonged period of time, the cell internalizes its membrane receptors so the signal molecule can no longer bind to the cell and induce a change. In other words, the cell can become desensitized to the signal.
Like cell receptors that become desensitized to an extracellular signal after chronic exposure to it, Georgetown University students can become desensitized to apparent norms such as stress culture, feelings of inadequacy and the urge to be perpetually busy. But students should resist the cellular precedent to become desensitized to persistent signals. This resistance is critical to one’s mental and physical well-being.
Surrounded by peers who work relentlessly, the glorification of sacrificing sleep to work more than your peers and the pressure to get the perfect internship, it is easy to accept high stress levels as a norm in college. I am all too familiar with this bombardment of expectations. In the fall of my sophomore year, my workload increased considerably. Learning organic chemistry, I started spending hours in the library assembling molecules with a plastic model kit to wrap my mind around conceptually difficult material. I also joined a research lab, which necessitated getting up to speed on biological processes that were much more complex than those in any of my prior coursework.
Though pressed for time and sleep, I felt like I needed to do more. I was surrounded by seemingly endless opportunities on campus and in Washington, D.C., and my peers seemed to be taking advantage of them all. Like a cell that withdraws its membrane receptors in response to being surrounded by an abundance of a molecular signal, I tried to get used to a new normal of busyness, along with the stress and sleep deprivation that accompanied it.
This compulsion to succumb to Georgetown stress culture was spurred by my desire to fit in with my ambitious classmates. Though a benefit to attending Georgetown is the opportunity to be surrounded by bright, hardworking individuals with big ambitions, it is also easy to feel inadequate in this environment. When I first arrived on Georgetown’s campus as a freshman, the student body seemed to be a sea of high school valedictorians with ample previous accomplishments, and I became focused on merely keeping up with my impressive peers. Shifting my mindset to focus on my own progress and accomplishment at Georgetown has been an ongoing process.
For most of my time at Georgetown, I have embraced a busy schedule in an attempt to avoid missing out on any academic or professional opportunities. Almost too late, I have realized that doing so has caused me to miss some of the opportunities that cannot be captured in a line on a resume. I am embarrassed to admit that I waited until my senior year to go to a Georgetown basketball game and that I have yet to visit some of the Smithsonian Institution museums. In my final semester at Georgetown, I have chosen to take four classes instead of five so I can fully devote myself to one last semester of classes, activities and time with the friends who I will not live within walking distance of next year. I am determined to see D.C. landmarks I have not yet visited, to celebrate weekly Mass in Dahlgren Chapel with the Jesuits and to attend more unique on-campus events.
Cellular desensitization allows a cell to protect itself from the detriments of excessive response to a particular molecular signal. In stark contrast, becoming desensitized to apparent norms such as pressure to be busy can have dangerous effects on the well-being of Georgetown students. I urge students to reject the norm of perpetual busyness and to make time for activities they enjoy. While desensitization to a bombardment of signals may be an appropriate response for cells, desensitization to stress culture is not beneficial for our Georgetown community.
Sarah Reuter is a senior in the College. Molecular Musings appears online every other Wednesday.