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Handling Finals Stress

Stressed student screaming
Image taken from: "Exam Stress: What is it and how can I manage it?"

By Kate Fairhurst

Let’s paint a picture together. You just got back to school from break and notice that you’re on the struggle bus trying to get re-motivated to finish out the semester strong. Just the thought of sitting through two more weeks of class (not to mention Finals Week) has you wanting to escape to your happy place (beach, mountains, home, anywhere but sitting down to study). Sound familiar? Well, let me tell you that you are not alone. Unfortunately, no matter how tempting it is to book an impromptu flight to the Caribbean, one uncontrollable fact remains: final exams are approaching and that may mean your stress levels are on the rise.

Stress and You

If you’re someone who experiences stress during exams and feel like you struggle to get a handle on it, it’s okay. Stress responses and nerves are natural human processes that clue us into life events that are important to us. However, many of us could benefit from utilizing stress management skills, even if it’s just to help get through the end of the semester a little bit more balanced and healthy.

So what’s the magic formula to making exams a pleasant, stress free experience? That may not be entirely realistic, but hopefully some of the strategies below can help you get through it just a bit easier. 

Rethink Stress

Earlier in the semester, Chelsea Latorre wrote a blog post about stress and talked about how some stress can be helpful to doing well on exams. This is such an important point to remember that I want to revisit it briefly. If you’re someone who typically believes that any and all stress is negative, it may be helpful to shift your perspective a bit and think of certain levels of stress as a positive thing. Optimal levels of stress help increase your attention, focus, alertness, memory recall, and many others! All things we really need when taking exams. Sometimes, simply changing how you think about your stress can help!

How do you go about finding optimal stress levels? Many of us are on the “I’m too stressed” end of the spectrum. I like to think about stress management like a see-saw. 

Balanced seesaw with happy face on the left and sad face on the right

Image taken from: "Why Stress Can be Good for You"

I know it’s been a long time since we’ve all been in a playground, but stick with me for a second. For example, for every piece of stress that comes along, how can you balance it out with something fun, relaxing, or fulfilling.

I think it would be unrealistic to assume that the next three weeks will be stress free, so the big question becomes: what can I do to keep the balance?  

A big part of managing stress is about finding balance for yourself.  Just like a see-saw.

Too much stress without self-care and coping sends one end nose-diving into the sand. That doesn’t sound like a recipe for a successful exam week, academically or mentally! 

I encourage you to take a step back and think about what your see-saw looks like right now. Is one side buried in the sand? The majority of us have been there too. So, what’s next? It’s time for some brainstorming on your end. I’m going to help you out, but what balance looks like for me or your classmates might not be what balance looks like for you. Take a second and read through the list of common stress management strategies. Once you run through the list, add some or even re-write a few of your own based on your own likes and dislikes. Remember, you are the expert in your own life. The goal here is to start becoming aware of the types of behaviors, hobbies, and activities that might help even out your see-saw. Give a try.

Common Stress Management Strategies

  • Watch a video or listen to a podcast or comedian that makes you laugh. Laughter has some serious stress-fighting superpowers.
  • Drink a hot, soothing herbal tea or a ho t chocolate. It’s a well-known fact that hot drinks are known to soothe the soul. Avoid too much caffeine though!
  • A bath can help to relieve stress.  A dd Epsom salts or essential oils like lavender or tea tree to get the full " spa"  effect .
  • Cook or bake something. Just the thought of having something delicious to eat can bring you joy. As a bonus side note, try and cook something healthy too. You can’t feed your mind well, if you don’t feed your body well. Foods that are high in antioxidants (like blueberries) and healthy fats (like eggs) have been shown to be helpful for brain health and focus.
  • Get some sleep. The virtues of a good night’s sleep during exam season should not be underestimated. Seriously, sleep. Do it. Most of us could use more of it.
  • Keep things in perspective. Yes, exams are important, but you are SO MUCH MORE than your exam results.
  • Avoid other stressed people. You know the ones I mean. They will do nothing for your stress levels.
  • Avoid the exam "post-mortem”. You don’t need to know how other people fared in the exam. You’ve done your best, you can’t go back and change your answers. The second you step out of the exam hall, focus on your next exam.
  • Be flexible. While having a study time table is one of the best tools in your arsenal for exam success, don’t be too hard on yourself if you don’t stick to it. Adjust, refocus, and reset. Keep going.
Last, but certainly not least, BE. KIND. TO. YOURSELF. 

College exams are tough and you are not alone. We’re rooting for you. If you don’t believe me, stop by the Carruth Center. We’re here to help you get through college exams (and college in general). Check us out. Seriously. I might be biased, but we’re a bunch of really caring, awesome people. Here’s the 4-1-1:

Is your stress difficult to manage or interfering with your daily routine?  Consider scheduling an appointment with a clinician at the Carruth Center; they can help you learn effective stress management strategies through free group or individual counseling.  Our center also offers free drop-in hours from 8:15 AM to 3:00 PM Monday-Friday.  Questions? Need more information?  Give the center a call at 304-293-4431.

Kate Fairhurst

Kate is a 4th year student in the combined Ph.D. Sport, Exercise, Performance Psychology Program/ M.A. Clinical Mental Health Counseling program at WVU. She is a clinical trainee at the Carruth Center where she provides personal counseling and group services. Outside of Carruth, she supervises community-based adaptive sport and physical education program for the Monongalia County School District and coordinates the community LAP gymnastics program through WVU. Outside of school, Kate can usually be found in the gym lifting, out on the river fishing, or talking up a storm about all things health, nutrition, and wellness!

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