The end of the semester is approaching, and that means final exams are on the horizon. This can be a very stressful time for many of us, since exams often count for a significant portion of the final grade, and there’s everything else going on in our lives on top of that. Thankfully, there are ways to reduce your stress levels that won’t only keep you sane; they might even help you do better on your exams. Here are some of the ways that you can reduce your stress while preparing for final exams.
The benefits of regular exercise include strengthening your bones and muscles, managing your blood sugar and insulin levels, and reducing your risk of heart disease, to name only a few things. Did you know that exercise can also lower your stress levels? According to the Mayo Clinic, virtually any form of exercise can act as a stress reliever, and it does this in a few ways:
- It increases your body’s production of endorphins, which are the feel-good neurotransmitters commonly attributed to the runner’s high.
- It causes you to concentrate on your body’s movements, driving out the thoughts that are stressing you through singular focus, similar to meditation.
- It can increase your self-confidence, relax you, and lower the symptoms associated with mild depression and anxiety, all of which will improve your mood.
If you want to use exercise as a stress reliever, the main thing is that you find an exercise that you enjoy doing. Whether it’s running, weight training, yoga, playing a sport, or even dancing, if it’s an activity that gets your body moving, it will aid in reducing the stress you’re feeling. If you’ve got the time and are on the main campus, you can visit the ACC Fitness Center in the Annex building, which has equipment that students can use for free when you swipe your student ID card.
Having a well-balanced diet, one that contains a good balance of proteins, carbohydrates, and fats, is essential to living a healthy lifestyle. While the occasional fast food outing or snack run isn’t going to ruin your diet, reaching for a cheeseburger or bag of chips might not be the best option while you’re studying. In fact, according to UCLA’s Explore Integrative Medicine site, there are certain foods and other supplements that can aid in lowering your stress levels by strengthening your immune system, stabilizing your mood, and reducing blood pressure. Here are some nutrients that can help to reduce your stress, and some foods that contain them:
- Vitamin C – lowers your levels of cortisol (a major stress hormone) and your blood pressure during high-anxiety situations.
- Citrus fruits, pineapple, broccoli, tomatoes.
- Complex Carbohydrates – Increases serotonin production (which contributes to well-being and happiness) and stabilizes blood pressure.
- Whole grains, fruits, vegetables.
- Magnesium – Useful for avoiding headaches and fatigue, relieving premenstrual mood changes, and improving sleep quality.
- Leafy greens, salmon, soy beans/edamame.
- Omega-3 Fatty Acids – Reduces surges of stress hormones and promotes protection against heart disease, depression, and premenstrual syndrome.
- Tuna, salmon, pistachios, almonds.
Some common comfort foods can also give you benefits. A bit of dark chocolate not only relieves stress, but can improve your cognitive function and mood, while oatmeal can reduce your levels of stress hormones and boost your serotonin. If you enjoy drinking tea, you can benefit from chamomile, which relieves stress-induced symptoms, mint, which relieves stress and induces calmness, and barley, which relaxes the body by improving serotonin synthesis. If you’d like to pick up a healthy snack or some tea ahead of your finals, the Espresso Yourself Café on the Main Building’s first floor offers a wide range of items that have stress-relieving benefits, and will be open from 8:00 am to 6:00 pm before and during finals week.
According to the National Center for Complimentary and Integrative Health, meditation as a practice is used “for increasing calmness and physical relaxation, improving psychological balance…and enhancing overall health and well-being.” In trials and studies, it has been determined that a particular form, mindfulness meditation, shows evidence of improving anxiety, depression, and even insomnia. Here are a couple of ways that you can practice mindfulness meditation:
- Remain aware and present in the moment – don’t let the past or future concern you, pay attention to your current surroundings without judgment.
- Breath awareness – take slow, deep breaths, count the number of seconds you spend breathing, and ignore any thoughts that enter your head. Focus only on your own breathing.
Meditation has an advantage in that it can be done just about anywhere, and you can employ some of the breathing techniques while you’re taking your exams. One technique, called 4-7-8 breathing, is to slowly breathe in for four seconds, hold that breath for seven seconds, and then slowly exhale for eight, and repeat at least three more times, or until you’re feeling relaxed.
Sleep and stress both influence each other. When we get the necessary amount of restful sleep per night, our stress levels on average are lower, but when we’re stressed, it becomes harder to get that good night’s rest. On top of that, stress can lead to insomnia, further making it difficult to fall asleep and stay asleep. So what can you do to get the sleep that will help lower your stress and get you well rested for exams? The National Sleep Foundation offers these tips:
- Exercise – releases both physical and mental tensions. Recommended at least three hours before bedtime.
- Downtime – avoid electronics and work-related, stimulating, or stressful activities. Do calming activities such as reading, light stretching, or listening to calming music. Recommended 30 minutes to an hour before bedtime.
- Decompression techniques – deep breathing, guided imagery, or progressive muscle relaxation. Recommended five to 10 minutes before bedtime.
Other ways that you can get to sleep more easily include not eating within one to two hours before bedtime, avoiding caffeine in the afternoon and evening, drinking herbal teas containing chamomile, valerian, or lavender, and aromatherapy.
Between school, work, social time, and personal time, we’re trying to juggle a lot of events both in our lives and with other people’s lives, which contributes to a lot of our stress. Knowing how to effectively manage that time can help to eliminate some of that stress. The McGraw Center for Teaching & Learning at Princeton University has come up with ten principles derived from research on time management, motivation theory, and experience working with university students that can help you effectively plan out your time. Here is the abridged version:
- Commitment – Only schedule tasks if you’re going to do them.
- Pursue fun – Make time for the things you enjoy doing, and organize your academic and other obligations around those commitments to fun.
- Time vs. task focus – Devote time to important tasks, and set your purpose for those tasks.
- One thing at a time – Current research shows that what we consider to be multi-tasking is actually switching back and forth between tasks, which takes more time and energy.
- Block out time – Devote chunks of time to specific classes, and make those chunks a part of your regular schedule.
- First things first – Schedule the most important tasks to do first thing in the day, or as early as possible.
- Routine – With good habits in place, you don’t have to make as many hard decisions, and are less likely to make unproductive ones.
- Flexibility – Leave empty time slots for when your schedule changes, and schedule in recreation time.
- Respond vs. react – When faced with a decision to diverge from your schedule, pause and take a moment to think about it, then remember what’s most important to you and do what will help you get it.
- Organize your environment – Minimize distraction, maximize focus, use physical reminders, enlist the aid of friends for studying, and ask them not to call or text you when you need the time for your tasks.
Since study time should be on your agenda, here are some tips when studying for exams:
- Review your notes often to familiarize yourself with the content.
- Give yourself short breaks every 20-30 minutes to give your brain a chance to process the material.
- Avoid cramming right before your exam.
Lastly, be sure to include enough time in your schedule to get to class at least five minutes early. Take into account how long your commute time is in the worst-case scenario so that you can don’t find yourself stuck on the road when your exam starts.
Whether you try one of these methods or all of them, each method has a positive influence on the effectiveness of the others, so try whichever ones fit your wants and needs and experiment. There are many other ways that you can reduce your stress as well. One such way is through the Denver Pet Partners Therapy Dog event, being held this May 6th from 11:30 – 1:30 in the library on the second floor of ACC’s main building. The library will also be offering healthy grab ‘n go snacks and extending their hours that week, giving you more opportunities to practice beneficial stress relief before finals begin.
Good luck to all of you on your exams!
by Martin Strom, ACC Copywriter