Let’s start with a breathing exercise:
Sit in a comfortable position,
in a low stress environment.
Close your eyes or look at the
Slowly breathe in through your nose.
Count 1 – 2 – 3 – 4.
Focus on the feeling of your rib cage
expanding outward like a balloon.
When full of air, hold your
Count 1 – 2 – 3 – 4.
Then, slowly let the air out
through your mouth.
Count 1 – 2 – 3 – 4 – 5 – 6 – 7 – 8.
Repeat this three times then open your eyes.
Stress is not a one way street. Depending on who you ask, stress can have a plethora of effects and definitions. Even the dictionary has at least seven definitions of the term, and that’s just for the noun form. Regardless, stress is an unavoidable factor of life, and it is one we never see coming. Seriously, try and pinpoint when you went from being a happy, unbothered child to this mess of anxiety, stress, and panic. It’s impossible.
Now, as any doctor will tell you, not all stress is bad! In fact, stress and anxiety can often be beneficial in our daily lives. Allow me to get sciencey with you:
This is the Yerkes-Dodson Law (and yes, Arousal means stress, get your head out of the gutter). The bell curve is a measurement of how anxiety affects performance. Psychologists use the curve as a means of expressing the optimal levels of stress. This is the area in the middle of the curve, where a person is feeling a medium amount of stress. This is just enough stress to keep your mind alert and focused on the task at hand, so your performance improves! However, the curve also points out the two dangerous ends of the spectrum. While having low stress might sound ideal, there is such a concept of “too low”. This is often seen in people who are suffering from depression, lack of motivation, refusal to get out of bed, etcetera. These are also people who will put less effort into studying for an exam, which is why their performance is at a dangerously low level. If you have a friend who is showing these symptoms, have them contact the Learning Assistance Center (firstname.lastname@example.org) or the Office of Wellbeing (email@example.com).
Since you now know a bit more about the science of stress, let’s focus on the core of this article: the high level of the spectrum. This is the type of panic attack, freak out stress we normally associate with the word. When your brain reaches this level of stress, it begins to shut down, going into what is called a “sympathetic” reaction – the “Fight or Flight” reaction. Because of this, the key areas of your brain you use to access and retain information do not work, and you are unable to perform well. Your body will begin to focus more on decreasing your level of anxiety and less on figuring out that test question.
So, how do we avoid this level of stress? How do we calm down if we reach that point of high stress? How can we make small adjustments to better manage our well being? Let’s dive into it:
Avoiding Stress Beforehand:
Believe it or not, you can prevent those big scary panic attacks way before they could become an issue by doing one thing: practicing! The more you practice and train at doing something, the less stressed you will be when facing an issue. In regard to academics, this means STUDYING AHEAD OF TIME. Biologically, your brain shuts down when you attempt to cram in a lot of information in a lot of time. Yes, there are theories of people who look at their work before bed and then wake up knowing the information, but that doesn’t work when you have to memorize 94 flash cards in 24 hours. However, no one can master proactivity overnight, especially if you struggle with focusing. So, what can you do?
Make a schedule:
The best advice I ever got was from one of my professor’s: “for every 30 minutes in your day, write down exactly what you will be doing then, and stick to that schedule.” Yes, it seems extremely over the top, but it truly does work. Everyone should have two schedules on them at all times (either on your phone, in a planner, or in some other calendar format). The first is a master schedule that shows all big due dates, exams, quizzes, etcetera, for your classes. Use this to stay on top of what is coming up each week and figure out how long you have to plan in between each exam. The second should be a weekly schedule, showing each day of the week. This schedule will be used to show when you have free time in between classes, club meetings, sports, etcetera. It also can be useful towards scheduling when you can socialize, so you know which weeks you should study more during to not miss out. In the free time, write in what assignment you are working on and for how long. I know, it sounds insane, but this method really does work.
Decrease the number of distractions:
This is probably one of the most important points on this list. Trust me, there is never any need to check your phone while you study. Turn it on do not disturb or all the way off. If you really need, put it on airplane mode. This goes for your laptop
too; put it on do not disturb and avoid opening unnecessary tabs. If necessary, look up an online software that will prevent you from getting distracted. Above all, find an ideal studying environment. This can be different depending on the person. If you are someone who needs to be alone in an isolated place, ZSR Library has a few cubicles in the back of the book stacks. If you want to be alone, but not in a tight space, you can reserve study rooms in ZSR, Farrell Hall, Starbucks, or even in regular class buildings. These are also ideal locations to work on group projects or labs. If you are like me and oddly work best in areas with a lot of people, the bottom floor of ZSR and Farrell are great locations. However, be careful working in places with a lot of people, as it could be distracting. Put in noise cancellation earbuds and avoid talking to people. While it may work for you, I would heavily advise against working outside, in the Pit/Benson, or in your dorm room. These are areas with a large amount of distractions, making it even harder to focus. Yet, if it works for you, keep up the good work.
Go to office hours:
Even if you are doing well in a class, you should always go to office hours. The primary role of a teacher is to teach you the material, so there are no dumb questions! Even if you know the answer, go pick their brains, and see how else the concept can be applied. If you are stressed, go talk to them about it and ask if they have any studying tips. Often times, teachers will use this opportunity to provide you with key insights and extra practice material. If you are struggling in the class, go show the teacher your willingness to do better and work with them. Yes, the solution may not be easy nor the one you want, but they know best in this situation, so trust them. Again, don’t be afraid to speak to them! They once were students, just like you. They understand what you are facing.
Review with Others:
Yes, reviewing by yourself is something you should always do and prioritize, but it is important to study with others too. Studying with other people can help point out issues you or the other people may have with the material. It is a great way to realize if you have been studying something incorrectly. This also is a good way to pick up on good studying tips, especially if you are working with people who have been doing well in the course.
I get it; no one likes to be the one who has to stay in on Friday night because she has to study. It sucks, but it is NOT the end of the world. In life, the grade you get in a class is far more important than that singular party you missed. Also, this is college. You are only missing out on one of the million weekends you will spend going out and having fun. Yes, FOMO can suck, so avoid checking social media or your friend group chats. The feeling of not doing well sucks WAY MORE than the fear of missing out.
Be cautious with how many you take, but breaks are important towards managing stress. Within a day, you should have at least 8 hours of relaxation time in your schedule. However, the majority of these hours of relaxation should be towards the end of the day (at night), and not in the middle of the day. If you take a three hour break at noon, you will lose a lot of the motivation you had initially, and end up having to study later at night. At night, your body is tired, and the last thing it wants to do is write that history essay. Yet, if you try to ground out 7 straight hours of accounting, your brain will start to retain less information. So, taking an hour break to grab food, do some errands, get some fresh air, shower, etcetera, should be worked into your daily schedule. Just avoid getting distracted on those breaks and taking more time than anticipated.
Above all, make sure you are getting an appropriate amount of sleep. This should be about 7-9 hours per night, with the rare exception of 6 hours. Not having a steady sleep schedule can actually increase the amount of anxiety and stress a person experiences. Yes, getting to bed early can be really tricky in college, especially if you have very noisy roommates, who don’t go to bed early. Firstly, don’t feel bad about telling them, nicely, to be quiet. If they were in your position, they wouldn’t want to be kept awake either. If this doesn’t work, invest in a noise machine and noise cancellation ear plugs (you can find a bunch on Amazon). These can help you fall asleep in peace and get the hours you need.
Escaping Stress During the Test
So, you’ve made it to the test, and you’re starting to panic. Yes, you studied and worked hard, but you can’t seem to contain your anxiety. You know you can’t get stressed because it will make you do worse, yet it won’t go away. How do you stop it?
Just as we did at the beginning of this article, do a 4-4-8 breathing exercise. Taking those three deep breaths can actually help calm your brain and clarify your thoughts. Often times, the stress on exams is just you getting stuck in your head, and doing this quick exercise can pull you right back out again.
Everyone has different strategies when it comes to testing, so don’t think you need to do this. However, if you get stuck on an exam question, don’t waste time on it. Go through and answer easier questions first. Then, keep coming back to those harder problems and pick away at them. Often times, coming back to a question can help you realize something you missed, maybe even the solution!
Try to See the Big Picture:
Similar to Step 2, try to step back when attempting a difficult problem. Many times, the answer could be right in front of you, and your mind is focusing too heavily on the smaller details. Take a deep breathe and focus less on the minor details. It can easily clear up a difficult problem.
Make an Educated Guess:
Yes, you have been told multiple times that this is not a great method of answering questions, but in a worst case scenario, this is a good option. Often times, your answer will still be remotely right and you could earn some partial credit. It also can help show a teacher grading that your mind was in the correct area, you just couldn’t remember a specific detail. However, try to rely on the other steps first, and only use this when you can’t figure it out or run out of time.
Never Lose Hope!
Yes, it may seem impossible, but that answer is somewhere within you! Just because you can’t instantly think of it does not mean it will pop back into your head after some deep breaths or refocusing. The worst thing you can do on an exam is give up. That is you letting stress win. Don’t ever let that happen! Be confident in your abilities and never give up!
All in all,
Everyone goes through stress in different ways, and it sucks! However, that does not mean it is the end of the world! There are many methods, including the ones above, that can help you manage your school stress. So, go out and find the one that works best for you!
Happy Studying! ☺
Student Resources For Stress:
Learning Assistance Center The Office of Wellbeing
118 Reynolda Hall Reynolds Gym 321
(336) 758-5929 (336) 758-3089
If you or a friend are experiencing severe symptoms of stress, anxiety, or depression, please reach out to either of the resources to get help.