Sunday, December 4, 2016

What’s the best way to reduce stress—especially during final exams?

Chris Willard, a staff psychologist at the Tufts Counseling Center, gives advice

A stressed-out student

“For students facing final exams, eating right and getting exercise and sleep are all critical for optimal cognitive functioning and performance,” says Chris Willard. Photo: iStock

Stress can be defined as the body and brain’s fight/flight/freeze reaction to danger. It’s an important evolutionary response to save our lives if we are facing imminent danger—a lion jumping out at us or a car careening toward us. Unfortunately, our bodies and brains have almost the same reaction when it comes to a big exam, deadline or emotional event as they do if a lion were leaping out of the bushes at us. If we are constantly in this fight-or-flight state, it starts to take a serious toll on our physical and mental health.

Reducing stress is important, of course, but we don’t want to get rid of it completely. What we want to do is manage it—use the stress to help us feel motivated to study for that exam or talk to that person, but not allow it to paralyze us or make us run away. So we need to find a balance between letting it rule and ruin our lives and just shutting it off or ignoring it.

The top three ways to deal with stress are relaxation, self-care and goal setting.

Relaxation means more than just vegging out in front of the TV. It means relaxing into the moment, rather than relaxing to escape the moment. Take some time to sit and enjoy a cup of tea, take a walk, go to a yoga class, laugh with friends.

Physical health and self-care are simple: sleep, eat and exercise. I know I sound like a grandmother saying these things, but they really are true. Stress will be much worse if we don’t take care of these things.

Planning, goal setting and time management are the external things that will manage some of our stress. When we have a plan for a big assignment and have broken it into parts—even as small as “go to the library and get books on day one” to “edit final draft on day twelve”—the less overwhelming and stress-inducing it becomes, because it is familiar and doable.

This is true not just for schoolwork but anything stressful: work, planning for the holidays or whatever else is getting us stressed. Making a to-do list or schedule can really help, as we often see that it’s more manageable on paper than it appears to be in our heads. And there’s also that little rush we get from crossing items off our to-do lists: it is a real neurochemical phenomenon and will encourage us to keep going with our time management.

For students facing final exams, eating right and getting exercise and sleep are all critical for optimal cognitive functioning and performance. It can feel overwhelming to fit these in, but they are critical. Time management is also key during finals time, as is having a quiet space to study—your own corner of the library or a cafe. And don’t be afraid to shut off the phone and Internet for an hour or two at a time, or block out the world with earplugs during study time.

Make plans with friends to stay accountable: meet them at the library and then go to your section alone, or decide that whoever talks first has to buy coffee for the group. And when you take a break, really take a break mentally and physically—get off campus for a bit, enjoy your friends, watch a funny movie or listen to some great music or a fun, engaging podcast.

Do you have a question for Ask the Professor? Send it to Tufts Journal editor Taylor McNeil.

Recent Ask the Professor columns:

Why do I sometimes forget what I came into a room to get?

What is the appropriate age for children to start getting homework?

Can one develop perfect pitch?

Is it better to eat fruit and vegetable peels for the nutrients or cut them off to avoid contaminants?

Posted November 15, 2010