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How to Handle Midterm Worry and Stress

Stressed out student sitting at computer with title "How to Handle Midterm Stress and Worry"

By: Chelsea Latorre

It’s that time of the semester; midterms are right around the corner. This event happens every semester and even seniors who have been through this process for years can have difficulty managing their levels of stress and worry. Let’s discuss stress and worry to help you better understand what this can look like in your own life. 

Levels of Stress

Midterm stress does not have to be a daunting experience. In fact, there is research that shows that stress can be helpful during midterms and other peak performance times because it increases motivation and productivity. The way we think about stress, whether it is something that motivates us or debilitates us, has implications on our behaviors and on ways we manage the stress. 

You can be better prepared to take on midterm tasks by viewing stress as helpful.  The first step in determining how you can figure out your levels of stress, is by understanding your stress response. Check out the diagram below:

Bell curve of Stress Response; depicts that a little stress can be helpful in productivity to a point, and then too much stress impacts productivity

Image found at Explorable.com

This diagram shows how your performance is related to stress in a bell curve fashion. The good, motivating stress is on the left side of the diagram, where stress is mild to moderate and performance is toward its peak. This is typically the time when you feel you are being the most productive and using your time wisely. The right side of the bell curve shows how too much stress can decrease performance and essentially lead to physical, psychological, and emotional problems. This is considered the bad, debilitating stress where stress is moderate to severe. This is typically the time when you begin feeling illness coming on and your energy becomes increasingly depleted. 

The most important section is the middle zone of this bell curve, called the peak performance zone. In this space, you are a step past the stress you experience daily and can intervene before the stress overwhelms you. This is the critical time to use stress management strategies to work through the stress you are experiencing while seeing improvements in your performance.

Make this diagram personal to you – What do you notice about your comfort zone and how can you recognize when you are in it? What are some early signs you spot when you’re edging toward the right side of your bell curve? Where on this bell curve is your peak performance? What external and internal factors influence how you feel and what you do on varying levels on this bell curve?

Worry

Stress and worry are similar in that they both involve physical, emotional, and relational components to them. In other words, when you are stressed you experience it physically (i.e., difficulty sleeping, experiencing neck/back pain, feeling fatigued, etc.), emotionally (i.e., getting annoyed at things that typically wouldn’t annoy you, finding yourself easily overwhelmed, etc.), and relationally (i.e., getting into arguments with others more often, withdrawing from others, etc.). When you are experiencing worry, these same components are involved – you experience it physically, emotionally, and relationally.

How is stress different than worry? Worry tends to also involve more of a cognitive component to it where your thoughts are interfering with your day-to-day activities. We often become stressed due to something that happens outside of us (such as midterms approaching and your professors expecting you to study for several exams in one week). On the other hand, worry can stem from various sources. It can be in response to a stressful life event but can also be due to unhealthy thinking patterns. Like stress, worries can be both helpful and unhelpful – they can help motivate us but can also cause problems for us. Strategies to manage stress and worry do exist.  Let’s go over a few. 

Strategies to Manage (the debilitating) Stress and Worry

Throughout this blog, you’ve learned about ways stress and worry can cause problems in your academic performance (that is not to say that it can’t cause problems in other areas of your life, because it can – be on the lookout for future blogs that highlight other factors of stress).

Your stress and worry levels are manageable! Use these strategies to help you at the basic level:

  • Diet and Exercise : Often, diet and exercise are the first two things that go out of the window when stress increases. We start eating poorly and those hours spent at the gym become nonexistent
    • Focus on eating foods that provide adequate amounts of energy and stay away from those foods that make you feel sluggish.
    • E ven if you can’t make it to the gym, find creative ways to get that exercise in daily (I.e., take walks in between classes).
  • Sleep : Preparing for midterms is associated with spending late nights cramming for exams. However, sleep is one of the most important things your body needs to generate energy and heal, both physically and mentally. If you want to retain what you are learning, you need to let your body have some rest.
    • Develop a bedtime routine – start winding down around the same time every night so that your body gets used to this and will naturally fall asleep rather than feeling like you must force yourself to sleep.
    • Limit use of electronics and consumption of caffeine and alcohol before bed – did you know caffeine has a half-life of 6 hours?! That means that caffeine is still in your system up to 6 hours after you drink it. Think about that the next time you buy your coffee or soda to help you reenergize throughout the day.
  • Exercise, but do it timely – your body needs about 2 hours to calm after a good workout, which means you can’t expect to sleep soundly soon after you leave the gym.
  • Relaxation Exercises : Use relaxation exercises throughout the day to help regulate your body and mind: Practice makes perfect – start practicing ways to calm yourself when you are in the good, helpful zone of stress and worry so that when your stress increases you can use those same strategies to regulate it.
    • Use meditation to gain control over worrisome thoughts you experience and pay attention to your breathing patterns. There are many ways to use meditation in your daily routine: Plug your headphones in your phone and listen to a guided meditation on YouTube while walking to class or right before your exam to help get yourself in a calm state. Play a guided sleep meditation at night as you are trying to go to bed.
    • Practice yoga to help calm your body while also getting exercise. WellWVU offers free yoga classes to students on both the Downtown and Evansdale campuses. Check out their class schedule  and stop in for a class when you recognize those signs of distress are coming on.
    • Use relaxation apps to keep you in check. Apps, such as Relax Lite and Stop, Breathe, Think are free of charge and include several resources to help regulate your body and mind any time you are experiencing distress. Headspace is an app that is free to sign up but includes resources that are available for purchase. This app focuses on ways to implement meditation and mindfulness in your daily routine.
  • Time Management : Think about how you are spending your time when your stress and worries increase. How much of that time is spent being productive? How much of that time is spent feeling stuck, which results in you not being able to focus or study?
    • This is the perfect time to take out that planner you got at the beginning of the semester. Write down all the deadlines you have upcoming and times you plan to use for studying and finishing assignments.
    • Include times where you need to schedule self-care and relaxation, as well as times you need to sleep. Creating a schedule like this helps you get the worry out of your head and onto paper. It helps you to become more aware of what it is that you need to be successful.
  • Have Fun : There is a saying: everything in moderation, including moderation. It’s unrealistic to expect that you can sit down and study efficiently for multiple hours across several days without any time for self-care or socializing. Make some time for short, fun activities where you can take a break to reset. When you return to studying, you will find yourself more productive and more energized than you would’ve been if you hadn’t.
  • Talk to others about your concerns: You are not alone in this process – there are 30,000 other students who are experiencing stress at varying levels. Feeling isolated in your stress and worry can cause these concerns to worsen. Reaching out for help by venting to a friend or simply asking for their support can reduce that feeling of being alone in your stress. There are also resources on campus that are available for you to use to help discuss these concerns. Check out some of the resources below. 

This list is not exhaustive, so it is important to know what resources you have on campus to supplement these strategies:

  • Carruth Center for Psychological and Psychiatric Services offers free group and individual counseling to students. If you find that stress is difficult to manage, and your worries are beginning to interfere with your daily routine, schedule an appointment with a clinician to learn ways to effectively manage these concerns. Our office offers free drop-in groups specific to stress and anxiety, which are available to all students who have had an initial appointment at the center. Call our office at (304) 293-4431 to schedule an appointment and we can help direct you to the services that are appropriate for your concerns.
  • MindFit Clinic: Learning Skills Consultation sessions are available to every student! These services are provided one-on-one with students to help you create effective habits for academic and personal success (such as improving time management, organization, and study strategies). Typically, students learn techniques and strategies that best fit their needs within three sessions. The cost is $75 for three sessions, which seems like a lot of money but is worth the investment for the long-term positive outcomes. Apply for a consultation appointment on the MindFit website.
Chelsea Latorre
Chelsea is a 4th year doctoral candidate in Counseling Psychology at WVU. She is a supervised advanced trainee at the Carruth Center, where she provides individual and group counseling to students. Chelsea has experience facilitating skill-based groups and presenting workshops on reducing and managing anxiety and stress. Interested in scheduling a workshop for your organization/group on campus? Request a program on our outreach and consultation page.  





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