BU Today

Health & Wellness

Coping with Stress

Tips on how to make it through finals

dealing with stress, final exams, study stress, study tips

Max Brooks (LAW'13) studies for finals in the Photonics Center. Photo by Kalman Zabarsky

See if this sounds familiar. It’s the first day of the study period. Finals start on Friday. You’ve got papers to write, projects to complete, and exams to prepare for. The holidays are looming and you haven’t shopped at all. And the boss at your part-time job wants you to work just one more night this week—pretty please?

Feel that yet? It’s called stress. And it’s something that can overwhelm even the most diligent student this time of year. And it’s why Student Health Services Wellness & Health Education office is hosting its Well-Break today from 3 to 6 p.m. in the George Sherman Union Metcalf Ballroom, an event featuring educational booths on breathing and visualization, acupuncture, yoga, test anxiety, healthful foods, and much more.

BU Today spoke with Michelle George, the University’s wellness coordinator, about how to deal with stress and how it hurts, and helps, the body.

BU Today: This is a stressful time of year, especially for college students. What’s your advice as students prepare for finals?

George: From this day forward, look at what the next two weeks is going to bring you and set up goals that are realistic. Put things in perspective. Identify the five or six things that have to be done and then set up a task list and prioritize it. Once a plan is set up, it’s not so overwhelming.

It’s important to take a cognitive break every 90 minutes, at minimum. After about 90 minutes, the brain is just not as able to stay focused and so distractions pose more of an issue. Also, switch up how you study. Try to prep for each exam or each project throughout the day so you don’t get bored or overwhelmed with one topic.

And find 10 or 15 minutes for yourself to just enjoy living, not only during this time of year, but every day. Our society is so go-go-go, deadline-driven, and fast-paced that we forget sometimes what the purpose is.

How does stress affect the mind and body?

The research is not necessarily definitive. There are a lot of causal links. People think stress causes muscular tension and can lead to headaches and migraines. A lot of research suggests it causes issues with the stomach, like irritable bowel syndrome and ulcerative colitis. Your immune system slows down, making you more likely to get a cold or flu. Your limbic system, which is your emotional control system, slows down and that can make you more edgy, irritable, and likely to mouth off at people who probably don’t deserve it. In addition, a lot of people have trouble sleeping. And that lack of sleep leads to an inability to focus.

What are the worst things to do if you’re stressed out?

A lot of people eat on the run and skip meals. Instead of sitting down, taking a break, and engaging with friends in a conversation at mealtime, which can be very helpful in managing stress, we grab food on the go and eat while we’re running to catch the T and studying our flashcards. Those foods can sometimes be healthy, but too often they’re potato chips and soda.

A lot of people look at breaks as a waste of time. In reality, you probably will get more done if you take a break. Sleeping less, pulling all-nighters, and skipping the gym can definitely have a negative impact on your stress levels.

You advocate present moment thinking. Explain what that is and why it’s important.

A lot of times we live in the past and the future. While it’s difficult to think in the present, trying to recognize when we’re thinking in the past or the future and how that’s affecting our overall feelings of stress can be helpful. Try to have goals, but don’t allow your anxiety about what is coming up to affect what you’re doing right now. Instead of saying to yourself, “If I don’t do well on this exam, then I’m going to fail the class, then I’m not going to graduate on time, and then I’m not going to get a job,” say, “OK, this exam is going to be really hard. What kind of practical strategies do I need to implement to ensure that I do well?” I talk to students a lot about the five-year test. If this is something you think is going to stress you out for the next five years, then you’re allowed to stress out about it. If it’s not, then you shouldn’t. For the most part, unless you have a personal chronic illness, or a death in the family, most things are not going to stress you out for that long.

Can stress be useful?

When your mind perceives some sort of threat to survival, the stress response turns on and that’s a way to protect you. Up to a point, being stressed actually helps you become more aware and more capable of doing things than when you’re not stressed. That’s why, for a lot of people, deadlines are really helpful, because they give you that motivation to get things done. But that switches off when it’s too much, and you don’t handle it effectively.

Life inevitably has stressful moments. What can people do to better anticipate and deal with them?

Before you take things on in life, think about it. It’s important to leave gaps in your schedule so that in the event something comes that you’re not expecting, which it will, you can fit it in. Looking at stress as a challenge rather than an insurmountable problem is a big deal. There’s a lot to be said for making deliberate decisions instead of always going with the flow. If you always go with the flow, then you’re never directing any of your own activities and you’re being a reactor rather than a pro-actor.

Student Health Services Wellness & Health Education office hosts a Well-Break on Tuesday, December 13, from 3 to 6 p.m., in the GSU Metcalf Ballroom, second floor, 775 Commonwealth Ave. Students who visit three educational booths eat for free.

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Leslie Friday, BU Today, Boston University
Leslie Friday

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