As exams loom, a prescription for coping
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 email@example.com.