As we move from the rush of midterms, labs, and assignments into final exams I see an increasing number of students that are suffering from acute anxiety, stress, and a full spectrum of other ailments and viruses. It breaks my heart to see such highly capable and accomplished young people struggling with sleep disorders, headaches, anxiety, panic, substance dependency, and other destructive symptoms and behaviours.
Working now in an Engineering Faculty, I remind my students that they are not here just to learn the technical and theoretical, but to learn how to function as professional adults in a world filled with deadlines, pressure and high expectations. Since our admissions criteria is so very high, there is no doubt that these students have the intellectual capacity to succeed; what ends up putting students at the greatest risk is how effectively or ineffectively they manage their stress response.
What happens with some students is constant worry, and pressure moves from being an acute stressor to a chronic way of being. Worry and anxiety become a constant thought pattern and the impact of that leads to low energy levels, sleep issues, over and under-eating, depression, and massive self-doubt. If these thoughts go unchecked the body responds as if it is at real risk of harm “fight or flight” and this causes the release of stress hormones, that result in a deepening of the problems. This cycle then repeats and repeats until the student starts to feel as though he/she can no longer function.
As final exams draw near, I want to remind students of the importance of recognizing this cycle and intentionally responding with simple actions to counter the bodies stress response. When you notice yourself feeling a stress response, take a moment to focus on your breathing. Just by bringing attention to your breathing and focusing on a slow out-breath you can reverse some of your body’s automatic responses to stress and feel calm again.
Rather than responding to the stress and pressure of exams by working longer and harder at studying, work smarter and shorter. Build into your exam routine time for play, exercise and sleep. To claim that you don’t have time for these activities will only contribute to your stress, will cause you to be less able to focus and will make it seem like you need to study longer, when really what you need most is a break. The impact of stress activation is that it shuts down your prefrontal cortex and makes it harder for you to think clearly. So take the time to engage in whatever activities help you to feel a sense of calm and well-being.
Lastly, if you are struggling to manage your stress reach out for help. Visit your academic counselling office and get referred to campus and community services that can help you.
The stress and anxiety that you are feeling is not a sign of weakness, if anything, the smartest and most capable people I know are often the ones that struggle the most with these things. We need to talk openly about it and realize that healthy mindfulness practices are as important as healthy eating, not smoking, exercise, and sleep.
So during this busy and stressful time of year make and take the time to care for yourself, body, mind, and soul.