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Campus Life + Health & Wellness

Battling Stress

As exams loom, a prescription for coping


BU offers students a wealth of resources for learning how to reduce stress and channel it so that it becomes a motivating instead of a paralyzing force. Alyssa Julien (SMG’11) (above) studies for exams. Photo by Kalman Zabarsky

It’s that time of year again: the end of term. First comes the urge to cram—when staying up into the wee hours seems like the only way to get a handle on an entire semester of course work. Fatigue soon sets in, making it difficult to concentrate for more than a few minutes at a time. The studying becomes less and less efficient. The piles of uncovered material don’t seem to shrink. And exams loom closer with every passing hour.

It’s the perfect recipe for end-of-semester stress, and several BU offices that serve students, including Student Health Services, are reporting a spike in students struggling to cope with stress and stress-related symptoms. “A couple of weeks ago when I was on call, almost everyone who called in was overwhelmed—that’s the word you tend to hear over and over again,” says psychiatrist Margaret Ross, director of SHS behavioral medicine, which offers counseling. “Students are having a lot of difficulty putting one foot in front of the other and taking things piece by piece, which is one of the best coping strategies.”

Many of the students Ross and her staff see are experiencing typical problems related to lack of sleep, such as fatigue, lack of motivation, and inability to focus. “But we’re also seeing other students who already have conditions that are worsened by sleeplessness and stress—depression, anxiety, and panic. And because they use caffeine to counteract the lack of sleep, it makes the anxiety or impulsiveness worse.”

The good news, health educators say, is that BU offers a wealth of resources for students to learn not only how to reduce stress, but channel it so that it becomes a motivating force instead of a paralyzing one.

The SHS website features a Wellness blog with user-friendly “Stress Clips,” five-minute podcasts on mindful relaxation and managing anxiety, among others. The site also has a comprehensive section on stress with links to many resources across campus.

Tomorrow, December 9, BU’s Student Alumni Association will host a De-Stress Fest at Agganis Arena, with acupuncture, massage, belly dancing, and yoga. And on December 13, Student Health Services and other BU partners will hold a Well-Break at the George Sherman Union Metcalf Ballroom, offering more massage, smoothies, and relaxation exercises—all aimed at helping students recognize and manage stress as final exams approach.

“A lot of students don’t understand that staying up until 3 or 4 a.m., studying all night, and drinking lots of coffee can produce a truly negative effect because it will slow you down and wipe you out,” says Glenn Wrigley, director of the Educational Resource Center, which offers a wide range of academic resources, including peer tutoring, a writing center, and workshops on managing test anxiety, stress reduction, and effective time management.

One of the biggest keys to managing time well? Knowing your limits and allowing yourself moments of release, Wrigley says. Whether it’s biking, dancing, piano playing, or micro-napping, maintaining some balance is critical, even when time is limited. “We constantly emphasize how important it is to know how to manage stress, because you’re never going to have a stress-free life,” he says. “It’s about teaching students the skills to take a step back and have a 30-foot view of the tasks at hand.”

According to the 2010 Healthy Minds study, a national survey ranking mental health concerns among U.S. college students that included a random sample of 3,000 BU graduate and undergraduate students, 83 percent of students said schoolwork was the top source of their stress in college. (The second highest, lack of money, trailed far behind at 51 percent.)

More than in previous years, Ross says, exam-period stress this semester is widespread: across the board, undergrads and graduate students are reporting a tremendous amount of pressure. And BU’s large population of international students adds to the complexity of the problem. “There are enormous cultural issues, some of which we’re more sensitive to and some of which we’re not,” says Ross. “There are cultures that expect students to perform amazing amounts of work without acknowledging the psychological toll that it takes.”

Ironically, BU wellness coordinator Michelle George says, stress has become one of the most popular catchwords of our pressurized modern age, but few people understand the fundamental nature of stress or how the stressors we experience have changed radically over time.

“People think of stress as this tangible thing, when in reality, it’s a reaction to something,” says George, who specializes in stress and whose Wellness blog is also on Facebook. “If you go back millions of years, the original purpose of stress was to protect you from danger. So if you came across a lion, for example, your body’s stress response turned on so that you could either fight the danger that was coming or run away from it.”

Fast-forward to the 21st century, she says, “and you’re really talking about chronic stress. Our stress is related to relationships, lost emails, talking to a professor. If your mind is spinning with worry and anxiety about an exam that’s four weeks away, it just stays that way. You actually have to work on relieving your stress rather than the body shutting it off by either fighting the source of stress or running away from it.”

It may take work, George says, but there are ways of reducing and overcoming stress. As clichéd as it may sound, that work starts with what she calls present-moment thinking. “It’s a very difficult thing to do in our culture, but I try to talk to students about living in the present moment and how they can be mindful of what is going on now instead of what happened last week or what’s going to happen in the future. A lot of it is about just learning how to breathe.”

The Student Alumni Association will sponsor a De-Stress Fest on Thursday, December 9, from 5 to 8 p.m., at Agganis Arena, 925 Commonwealth Ave.

Student Health Services will host a Well-Break on Monday, December 13, from 4:30 to 6 p.m., in the GSU Metcalf Ballroom, 2nd floor, 775 Commonwealth Ave.

The CAS Student Government Coffee@Finals program will once again offer free food and coffee, as well as tutors and study rooms, from Sunday, December 12, through Tuesday, December 14, 8 p.m. to midnight, in CAS Room 319, 725 Commonwealth Ave.

Francie Latour can be reached at comiskey@bu.edu.



5 Comments on Battling Stress

  • Anonymous on 12.08.2010 at 9:39 am

    Managing Stress

    Thank you for your very timely attention to stress managment on campus. As you pont out in the article, stress occurs as an adaptive response mechanism for survival in a hostile environment. As an medical school and undergraduate faculty member for over two decades, albeit at another institution, I have observed that much more can and must be done to comprehensively attack the detrimental effects of stress upon students. This includes recognizing and addressing addressing the elements of the academic environment that students percive to be hostile. We must ask ourseves if students who could most benefit from stress reduction workshops and other activities are actually able to attend. In my opinion, it would be valuable to reach out to students in a systematic fashion to understand their concerns, and to do our best to ameliorate those very modifiable elements of the academic environment that are so very likely to trigger severe stress responses in such bright and highly motivated young people who must suffer the effects. Certainly, we cannot eliminate all environemental stressors on campus; but, we must more critically examine whether indeed some can be modified to make academic life less hostile. It is only with the concern and cooperation of academic administrators, faculty, students, and families that the critical issue of student stress can be most effectively managed.

  • Anonymous on 12.08.2010 at 9:59 am

    I am not entirely sure what the first poster is specifically recommending but I believe teaching students how to handle stress is more beneficial than attempting to reduce it. Life will throw stress at them later on and there is no big brother or sister to reduce it then. They must be able to soothe themselves.

    Let’s not pander to students but better prepare them for life as it is — a stressful environment.

  • Anonymous on 12.08.2010 at 11:19 am

    Micro-napping isn’t the same as taking a regular nap. Micro-napping is a result of sleep-deprivation and usually only lasts a couple of seconds.

  • Anonymous on 12.08.2010 at 11:24 pm

    Yes, live in the moment, but...

    Yes, it’s important to parce out each challenge piece by piece, and organize your time carefully, sticking to priorities (and avoiding all that “free” caffeine!). But it might also help you students who feel like stress is much worse nowadays to know that we older folks have also been through the college mill before. OK, past generations might not have had so many media booming at us — no cellphones constantly beeping — but your parents and grandparents had just as many courses, assignments, exams, sleepless nights, money problems, romances/breakups, etc. As you have today. That’s college life…in fact, that’s LIFE! And count your blessings that you did not have the Vietnam war draft, the Korean War, or the two World Wars to face as many of us did ! And many of us geezers had none of the counseling services, Stress Fests, and other coping strategies available to you guys today. So keep smiling, breathe deeply, stick to decafe, get some sleep — and don’t forget to count your many blessings. Believe me, as a man who started college 50 years ago this year, things could be MUCH worse!

    And remember, each generation has faced

  • Anonymous on 12.09.2010 at 1:32 pm


    You know, it might be that a major source of stress for students at universities is the tuition. Getting a C just doesn’t seem as acceptable when you or your family are paying somewhere around $50,000 for you to be there. Failing a class is the same as paying $5,000 to have your time wasted. Students have way too much invested (i.e. more money than they probably will ever pay back within 2 decades) to be able to relax. Just a thought though.

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