Students of all ages are starting to feel the end-of-semester time crunch. By understanding the nature of stress and what they can do about it, students can avoid getting caught up in that torrent of anxiety that fills the hallways. Just because other students are freaking out doesn't mean you have to. Here are 6 ways to decrease freak out:
1. Monitor Your Mindset: Multiple responsibilities at the end of the semester tend to result in overwhelm and panic. That is, if we lose sight of a healthy mindset. It's worthwhile to take a moment to step back from the piled-high desk and review how we're mentally handling this situation. Pretend you're standing outside your window and looking in on yourself sitting at that desk, pounding your head on the keybooard. What would you tell that person who is beating himself up over the final paper?
Shifting our perspective helps us make choices in how we handle the stress. Sometimes we just need to see that we're allowing ourselves to get carried away, and we can do something about it. To get into a less frantic mindset we can practice shutting off the out-of-control panic and examine the reality of the situation:
Keep in mind this advice by stress expert Andrew Bernstein: "Remember that stress doesn't come from what's going on in your life. It comes from your thoughts about what's going on in your life."**
2. Incorporate Self-care for Coping: Along with developing a healthy mindset, keep reminding yourself about short-term coping activities. They may seem like over-simplified cliches, but self-care activities like deep breathing, quick exercises/stretches, and mini-breaks really do have physical and psychological calming effects. Even if they seem insignificant as you're reading about them, make a commitment to incorporate them into your day- especially as you go through long periods of studying or sitting at a desk.
3. Maintain Reality: Stay present with what's in front of you. When we're overwhelmed, our thoughts tend to wander into the future and get stuck in worry mode. Worry is distracting and can make us physically and mentally exhausted... yet solves nothing. When we practice bringing ourselves back to the present moment - mindfully immersed in the task at hand - we become better skilled at letting go of anxiety. We can be pretty bad at predicting the future- things often turn out better than we imagine. Can you think of an overwhelming time when you did manage to get everything accomplished?
That's not to say we somehow magically make our overwhelm disappear. When we're busy, we're busy; and all the stress management tips in the world aren't going to take away the volume of work. It's for us to learn how to develop more effective emotional responses to that reality: "Okay, this is how it's going to be for awhile, I get that. I'll just do what I can right now, take the rest as I'm able, and then it will be over. Getting stressed out won't change the amount of work but it does decrease my ability to handle it effectively."
Remember that these deadlines will clear up and reprieve will happen. So keep that end goal in sight: A vacation is just around the corner. Help is on the way. I'll catch up on sleep this weekend, etc. It helps to have things to look forward to.
4. Spot the Advantage. Use this time to learn how to be your own best stress expert. Pressure and deadlines can help us plan and prioritize tasks, work smarter, work more efficiently, learn smart self-care, and become skilled managers. Those skills help reduce emotional stress reactions. Practicing them each time you're under a deadline helps hone your stress expertise.
One can look at stress management like business management. In hospital settings they use the word "triage" to prioritize patients by the severity of their injury or illness. Bleeding wounds treated first, runny noses treated last. If your schedule is starting to feel as hectic as an emergency room, you might need to triage your responsibilities for effective time management.
Try answering these questions for each responsibility: Can tasks be delegated? Can I enlist help? Does this task absolutely need to be done today or do I need to stop the bleeding somewhere else? If I push this off until tomorrow or next week, am I procrastinating or am I maximizing my time? Be kind to yourself and be realistic. You can only do so much in the amount of time you have, so work on what's in front of you and triage the rest.
5. Maximize Your Brain Space. Get your thoughts out of your head. Put them on paper. When we're overwhelmed our thoughts start swirling and it becomes hard to make sense of our situation. We blow things out of proportion and we start confusing the facts. We go into panic mode and we shut down.
Put your thoughts down on paper just to get them out of your head. Then, you can decide how to come up with your triage plan. You might also try journaling at night if your swirling thoughts are preventing you from falling asleep.
6. Avoid Isolation. I'm not suggesting you should avoid working in a quiet space, this is about retreating when the overwhelm gets to be too much to handle. If stress is getting out of control, don't just run away and pull the blankets over your head, reach out to someone. Talk to your peers who might also be experiencing overwhelm. Ask them how they're coping with it. You might make time to talk with a counselor. And if you don't have time in your schedule to go to a counselor's office, look for one in your area who is willing to meet by phone.
Our self-care is our responsibility and it's too often a responsibility that's the first to get left behind. If we lose sight of that, we can end up exhausted physically and emotionally. That can lead to increased frustration, loss of thought clarity, anger, and in the long-term can cause emotional problems that adversely affect our work and our relationships.
When you connect with others you're more likely to talk through it, have a few laughs, and take much needed breaks. Which brings up another point: Be sure you're taking breaks to eat regularly and drink water. Dips and spikes in blood glucose effect our mood and concentration. Proteins, complex carbohydrates, and adequate water intake help regulate our glucose and keep us feeling more balanced. Junk food and sugar drinks do the opposite.
If you aren't good at remembering what you've learned about stress and self-care, set up a "structure" to help you remember. This could mean setting an alarm on your phone, setting a simple online timer such as tabatatimer.com or online-stopwatch.com, or enlisting a colleague to make sure you're taking breaks. Smartphone apps such as Bloom can be scheduled to "check in" with you throughout the day and gently remind you to take a self-care break.
High level stress and constant stress should not be thought of as just an acceptable part of getting older. It's not some rite of passage into adulthood. Stress sickens and kills many people, so learning about the nature of stress early on will lead to healthier habits for a lifetime.
Students, check out this other Psychology Today article about studying, cramming, and sleep: Is That Extra Hour of Study Time Worth It? by Art Markman, PhD