It’s not always blatantly obvious that something is wrong. Oftentimes, we get so familiar with the uncomfortable that it becomes comfortable. We slip into unhealthy routines and eventually are unable to see the toll these patterns take on us. It takes a real shake-up for us to realize we need to make a change.
For Sam Arenas, she was unable to see the rut she had been in until she arrived and settled in at Cornell University.
“I didn’t really reflect on my experiences as an athlete until I got to college, nor did I truly think about how athletics shaped me as a person,” says Arenas.
Before college, her passion for volleyball fueled her athletic endeavors and pushed her to become comfortable connecting with others. She describes herself as a shy high school student, but was able to open up because of volleyball. By the time she reached college, she thought about volleyball very differently.
“The competition, the pressure, and the time constraints on my academics grew exponentially,” Arenas admits. “It really forced me to think about how volleyball has become part of my identity.”
Adjusting to the demands of college life, on top of being a student-athlete, were “really rough mentally and physically,” but Arenas was able to cope with these challenges by reaching out to those around her for help.
Before she came to Cornell, Arenas didn’t realize how much her mental health was suffering. It wasn’t something she thought about consciously. Arenas was used to being hard on herself, but didn’t realize how much her lack of self-esteem was impacting her negatively. These habits became a pattern that she didn’t recognize until she found herself in a dark hole during her first year at Cornell.
Arenas describes the transition as “extremely difficult.” She admits that she had trouble keeping up academically and athletically, partially because of the shock of being around her peers and teammates who were also at the top of their class academically and leaders in their athletic spheres. Arenas couldn’t help but blame herself for struggling to keep up with those around her.
Unfortunately, Arenas describes mental health initiatives at Cornell as “extremely slow-moving” which caused her to put even more pressure on herself to deal with new challenges on her own.
“I often felt that it was my fault for not being mentally stronger and handling the situations better than I was,” Arenas admits.
Eventually, she was able to reach out to her fellow teammates. This one seemingly small step seemed to make all the difference.
“I discovered that some of them were going through similar experiences,” Arenas acknowledges.
Along with talking to teammates about their experiences, her coaches took a big step by employing a sports psychologist for her volleyball team at Cornell during her sophomore season. Arenas believed this was long overdue, as she explains that mental health was “completely ignored” by coaches all throughout her athletic career.
“All of my coaches up until [my sophomore year of college] focused only on physical well-being,” she says. “My coaches never talked about mental health, and unfortunately, as a first year, we are largely brushed off and thought to be just ‘getting adjusted to Cornell,’ even if it is more than that.”
Because of this general mindset that most held around her, Arenas struggled throughout her first year of college. She was reluctant to get help because she didn’t think what she was going through was much different than what every first-year college student goes through when trying to get acclimated to a new lifestyle.
Arenas now knows that there is no shame in reaching out for help. She isn’t alone and is no longer ashamed of practicing self-care in tough situations. She finds focusing on her breathing to be helpful, along with positive self-talk. This doesn’t come easy; she still has to remind herself to make her mental health a priority.
“I take time out of my day to sit with the people I care about and hear what they have to say, because it reminds me of the love I share with others,” Arenas explains. “It is also easier for me to remain positive when I am feeding positivity into other people.”
Arenas has worked hard to get where she is. At Cornell, she is studying Biological Sciences with a concentration in Neurobiology and Behavior and she is aiming to go to medical school. She also hopes to make a positive impact in her community while reminding others that they are not alone in their struggles.
“I wholeheartedly believe we, as athletes, have a platform we can use to help inspire others and bring a positive impact into the community,” Arenas proclaims. “Whether it be in breaking down the stigma around mental health or in something else, I find it so important to be a voice for the people who are often not heard.”
What does “normal” mean to Sam Arenas?
“This is tough to answer because everyone is different in what they go through, so a definition of ‘normal’ would be blurred. But in terms of what should be considered ‘normal’ for a society would be being yourself, as you are, without being stigmatized.”