Final exam stress? Self-care is essential, says WUSTL staff psychologist

For many in America, mid-December means hanging lights, decorating the Christmas tree and going to holiday parties.

For college students, mid-December means another thing: final papers and exams.

“There is no denying that this is a stressful time of year,” says Brent Beam, PhD, staff psychologist in Student Health Services at Washington University in St. Louis. “The semester is ending and final exams and papers are due. It can be hard to stay focused on academic work. Unfortunately, it’s not over until that last final exam is completed.”

Beam suggests that during times of heightened stress and anxiety, self-care and skillful studying are essential. “The logic of all-nighters and caffeine diets may help in a pinch, but there are easier ways to get through it,” he says.

Beam has several tips to keep in mind.

  • Eat healthy.
  • Skip the sugar and go for foods that keep blood sugar stable — grains, fruits, veggies and proteins.
  • Hydrate often with water to naturally sustain focus and energy.
  • Reduce alcohol and caffeine.
  • Move the body. All those hours hunched over studying will take a toll. Exercise has a demonstrable impact on mood, concentration and energy level. Even if time is limited, taking a five-minute walk a few times each day is beneficial.
  • Visualize success. “I know this is such a therapist thing to say,” Beam says, “but consider what happens when you contemplate worst-case scenarios — heightened anxiety and the likelihood of actualizing what you have fearfully rehearsed. What would happen if you put that same effort into envisioning best-case scenarios — feeling confident, recalling information easily and succeeding?”
  • Work smarter. Beam says to think about this. “If you were graded on how high you could jump, what approach would you take? Would you jump as hard and fast as you can, repeatedly, until you wear out? Or would you strategize by resting between jumps, letting your muscles recover, making adjustments and even consulting with others?”
  • Keep at it. At this point in the semester, time is at a premium. It’s easy to feel overwhelmed with all that needs to get done. Break large tasks into smaller, more manageable parts. Tackle them one by one. And remember that sometimes the return on an investment is not immediate. Ride it out and see how small accomplishments make a big difference in the end.
  • Take breaks. Reward study efforts with some scheduled downtime. Take 15 minutes to nap, text friends, check Facebook, etc. Doing this can keep a student more on task when studying and provides a vital respite after some hard work.
  • Get plenty of sleep. If a body feels fatigued, it needs rest. Keeping a regular sleep schedule will help students retain information and enable clear thought.

WUSTL health educators have planned numerous events throughout the year — especially in the weeks leading up to final exams — to help students remain as calm and focused as possible.

  • Get a Grip is a six-week workshop on stress management led by WUSTL’s Health Promotion Services staff.
  • The Stressbusters program is finishing its fourth semester. Student volunteers have given more than 640 free five-minute back rubs at 23 events on campus this semester alone.
  • De-Stress Fest was held Dec. 8 in the Danforth University Center. Sponsored by the Student Health Advisory, the event featured professional chair massages, Stressbusters’ back rubs, healthy snacks, stress management tips and crafts.
  • Stress-Free Zone, sponsored by the university’s Congress of the South 40 and Residential Peer Health Educators, was held Dec. 10. That event included professional chair massages, Stressbusters’ back rubs, relaxation exercises, finals care packages and games.