Counseling & Psychological Services (CAPS)

Survival Guide to the End of the Semester

Another semester is coming to an end, which means that many of you see cramming and all-nighters in your future. Although this might seem like the best or only approach, there are others techniques that can yield better results. Don’t wear stress like a badge of courage to demonstrate how hard you are working. It’s time to shift the culture and think about an approach that enhances brain function through better wellness practices.

When we feel stressed out, we experience a “fight or flight” toward a perceived threat. For finals, the threat may be the possibility of failure or negative social comparison if you don’t do as well as your peers. When this occurs, the stress hormone cortisol is released into the blood and it can limit your ability to concentrate, decrease your capacity to remember information, suppress your immune system, and may literally kill brain cells. So, how can you keep your stress/cortisol levels down?

  • Set achievable goals. Dividing out the tasks you want to accomplish into small, achievable goals gives you the opportunity to experience small successes along the way. Success is associated with a release of endorphins into the blood, which are called “feel good hormones”.
  • Set a schedule. Placing your goals on a schedule will keep you anchored in the present so that you can let go of worrying about what you have to do next. Your schedule should contain study breaks so you can eat, exercise, and sleep. Planning these breaks with friends also can be an efficient way to keep you connected to needed support.
  • Practice mindful meditation. This strategy, practiced for only 15-20 minutes per day will calm and focus your mind, as well as temper strong feelings of anxiety that can be overwhelming.
    --Read more about meditation at https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/use-your-mind-change-your-brain/201305/is-your-brain-meditation.
    --Practice by going to https://itunes.apple.com/us/itunes-u/caps-self-help-materials/id482648690?mt=10.
  • Take breaks. Memory is highly influenced by recency and primacy effect, which means that you remember what you study first and last. If you have study periods longer than an hour or two, you are more likely to forget what you studied in the middle. A good rule to follow is that for every 45 minutes of studying you should take a 15-minute break to clear your mind and relax.
  • Eat antioxidant-rich foods. Stress produces cortisol, which promotes the release of free radicals that can kill brain cells. Eating foods rich in antioxidants like fruits, vegetables, nuts, beans, and dark chocolate can help combat free radicals.
    --For more ideas visit http://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/nutrition-and-healthy-eating/multimedia/antioxidants/sls-20076428.
  • Exercise. Physical activity is one of the best ways to decrease cortisol levels. A simple 20-minute walk can also help get the blood flowing back into your brain after sitting still for extended periods. Inadequate blood flow to the brain can contribute to memory loss. 
  • Sleep. Short-term memory is converted to long-term memory as you sleep. The more REM cycles you experience in a sleep event the better the transfer. Your brain actually clears out toxins while you sleep - Lack of sleep raises cortisol levels and can impede your ability to perform routine tasks. As stress increases in your daily life it becomes even more important to get at least 6 hours of sleep per night; 8 is better, but at least 6.
  • Breathe deep. Deep inhales through diaphragmatic breathing helps to slow down the central nervous system and provides necessary oxygen that fuels your body. These slow, intentional inhales calm the nerves and relaxes muscles.
    --Try this 1-minute breathing exercise that you can use anywhere https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=u9Q8D6n-3qw.
  • Be social. Spending time with people you love produces oxytocin. This chemical, dubbed the “hug hormone”, reduces anxiety and promotes relaxation.

These strategies won’t take all the stress out of finals but will help make you more efficient and effective, and keep you healthy for finals and a great launch into summer break.