10 Tips to Help You through Finals Season
End-of-semester stress got you down? Student Health Services offers some helpful suggestions to keep you well
If finals stress is making you feel like you’re drowning, Cong Zhang wants you to know you are not alone.
“This is definitely a time when students will express more anxiety about their academic lives,” says Zhang (Wheelock’17), a staff psychologist at Student Health Services (SHS). “Sometimes people will show symptoms of depression and anxiety, especially if it’s in the context of other stressors in their life.”
Zhang sees plenty of students seeking mental health counseling during finals season. While she aims to tailor her approach to each individual student, many of her recommendations are focused on emotion regulation and mindfulness.
“A lot of times emotions can get so overwhelming that we feel like they’re preventing us from doing the thing that we want to do,” she says, “like focusing on a paper that’s due on Monday. Emotion regulation skills are really helpful when we’re feeling overwhelmed and are looking to calm our body down and stay focused.”
As for mindfulness, Zhang says that there’s more to it than sitting in a quiet room and attempting to meditate.
“For me, mindfulness is really about paying attention to what’s in the present—like our feelings, our thoughts, and how we’re responding to the world,” she says. “It can help us build new neural pathways and different ways of coping with negative emotions.”
Zhang offers 10 tips to help you maintain your mental well-being during this time of year.
- Check in with yourself
Start out by asking yourself a few “check-in” questions: “First, focus on physical health,” she advises. “Are you feeling more fatigued recently? Is there any pain in your body? How are you feeling about eating?” After that, try to address your current emotional and cognitive states: “How are you feeling? Are you having racing thoughts? How do your thoughts impact your day?” Finally, think about your behavior. “If your sleep schedule is interrupted, or if you feel like you’re more withdrawn from friends and family, those are signs that maybe [stress] is changing your behavior.”
- Wake up your senses
“When we’re experiencing overwhelming negative emotions, it’s hard to calm ourselves down and change those thoughts or feeling states,” Zhang says. “What we can do is calm our body down.” She recommends engaging one of the five senses in something pleasurable and trying to experience the sensation to the fullest. “If you have a favorite blanket in your dorm, cover yourself with it and enjoy that sensation, or you could take some time to prepare your favorite beverage,” she says. “You can also combine the senses: if you’re walking down Comm Ave looking at the beautiful leaves, you can also put on some music, so it calms both your seeing sense and your hearing sense.”
- Find a mantra
In moments of panic or depression, repeating a therapeutic word or phrase can ground you and bring you back to the present, Zhang says. Some of her suggestions for finals season: “I’m having a really hard time here, but I’ll get through this.” “I’m feeling [stressed] because I’m human, [and] anyone in my position would feel this way.” “I am good enough. I trust my abilities. I’m prepared to succeed, and I also deserve support.”
- Don’t forget to sleep
“Prioritizing sleep time is important around this time,” she says. Not only does it restore the mind and body, but it can also help break you out of a procrastination funk.
- Get organized
Stress management doesn’t just address our emotional state, Zhang says—it can also improve our academic skills: “If you are anxious about having limited time to complete work, try putting deadlines in a calendar in a way that’s more visual, instead of just holding them in your mind.” Or you could take it to the next level, and practice mindfulness at the same time: “You can schedule a focus time every day [to organize your calendar and study materials] so that your brain can get used to it and can establish a good routine.”
- Break down big tasks
“It’s really helpful to break down big, complex tasks into very small, manageable tasks,” Zhang says. “If a student is struggling with a paper, then I would recommend taking it hour by hour. For that first hour, you can just allow yourself to jot down notes. For the next hour, you can say, okay, I’m going to write one paragraph.” And don’t forget to take breaks—but make sure not to bring your work with you: “If you have 15 minutes to enjoy a meal, just do that and then come back to work.”
- Don’t get too attached
“A lot of times, when we are overwhelmed by stress, we tend to overidentify with it,” Zhang says. “‘I’m having a hard time with this paper, my life is a disaster, I’m never going to be a good student, this is going to ruin my life.’” Practicing some nonattachment, she says, can help you break out of an anxiety feedback loop: “A good example from Zen philosophy is that you are the mountain. You can observe what’s going on around you—birds flying by, leaves growing and falling, flowers blooming and fading—but as a mountain, all you do is observe. You don’t have to respond.”
- Be gentle with yourself
When self-critical thoughts arise, try treating them with a dose of self-compassion. “I really enjoy thinking about a 5-year-old or 10-year-old version of myself,” Zhang says. “If you’re struggling, ask yourself, how would I respond to my [childhood] self in a loving and compassionate way?”
- Practice skills
If you try one of these skills during a crisis and don’t get the results you’re seeking, try practicing the skill again in a calmer moment. The more you practice a skill, Zhang says, the more familiar you’ll be and the better you’ll feel afterward: “We advocate for students to practice these [skills] every day, if they have a few minutes.”
- Ask for help
“If you are feeling very stressed during finals, it’s important to ask for help,” Zhang says. “I usually tell students that you are the CEO of your life, but you need a team to back you up.”
Students can find that team at SHS, where they can access individual therapists, referral coordinators, evaluation clinicians, and an after-hours hotline throughout the semester. Meanwhile, several SHS-run therapy groups—such as Managing Anxiety, Mindfulness Meditation, Sharpen Your Focus, and more—can help with stress. Those groups will continue throughout finals week. Find more information on the groups here.
“We want to be able to empower any student who comes to us to address their needs and meet their goals,” Zhang says.