School is packed with potential stressors — everything from penning research papers to giving presentations to taking final exams. Plus, if you’re away at college, you have the added stress of being on your own and navigating a slew of unfamiliar places and situations.
While stress is inevitable for students, it doesn’t have to bulldoze your life or affect your academic performance.
Below, Kathryn Tristan, a research scientist on the faculty of the Washington University in St. Louis School of Medicine, shares five tips for helping students like you to have a lower-stress semester.
1. Think positive possibilities, not catastrophes.
“The least helpful way we worry and stress out is by imagining the worst possible disaster might happen,” said Tristan, also author of the book Why Worry? Stop Coping and Start Living. She calls this “terribilizing.” One negative thought leads to another, and before you know it, you’re visualizing all the ways you’re going to fail the exam and fail at life.
It might start with this kind of thought: “I have to ace this test or it will be awful.” Then “your mind responds to this perceived threat and constructs many dire outcomes such as if you don’t get an ‘A,’ you’ll never get into grad school and then you’ll have only jobs that pay minimum wage, and then you’ll never be able to pay back your student debt [and so on].”
A better approach is to “possibilize,” she said. In other words, let your mind feast on positive outcomes. So your self-talk might sound like this: “This is only one test, and all I can do is prepare and do my best. Perhaps I need more help or tutoring. It’s OK to feel anxious. I’ll just study more. Some stress is good because it will motivate me to try harder. I always do the best I can.”
(Also helpful, according to Tristan, is simply saying to yourself and your thoughts: “Stop.”)
It takes effort to recognize when your thoughts have swerved off the rails, turning into one big negative loop. But with practice, you’ll be able to catch yourself and focus on being productive instead of paralyzed by catastrophic thoughts. Because here’s the reality: Most of our worries never even happen. And when bad things do occur, most people say “they handled it better than they thought they would.”
2. Focus on study strategies that work.
There’s nothing more stressful than cramming the night before a final exam. It’s overwhelming and virtually impossible to absorb all the information. Plus, you rarely sleep enough, sabotaging your ability to concentrate and think clearly the next day.
That’s why it’s helpful to “break down large projects into several smaller tasks,” Tristan said. Keep a planner, and set deadlines for each task.
It’s also critical to study smart. For instance, some research has found that common study habits such as rereading and highlighting actually aren’t that effective. But taking practice tests and studying over time is effective. (Learn more about highly effective study habits.)
3. Get moving.
“Moving is a natural way to clear blocked, stressed out energy,” Tristan said. It boosts your mood, reduces anxiety and helps you think more clearly. Pick activities that you genuinely enjoy, such as walking, running, dancing or taking group classes at the gym.
4. Nourish your brain and body.
We often forget the power of nutrient-rich foods, especially when we’re overwhelmed and pressed for time. Food has a great effect on our mood, energy level and ability to concentrate.
Tristan suggested adding the following foods to your diet: “oatmeal, fruits, vegetables, low-fat yogurt, lean meat, nuts, milk and eggs. When you have trouble sleeping, add such things as bananas, milk or turkey — sources of tryptophan, a building block for the neurotransmitter serotonin — cherries — a source of sleep-inducing melatonin — and chamomile tea — used for centuries to relax.”
5. Tune into the present.
Instead of rehashing the past or forecasting an awful future, focus on the present moment. Tristan suggested asking yourself these key questions several times a day.
- “What do I see?” This helps you get grounded and interrupts stressful thoughts.
- “What do I hear?” This helps you “focus on other things in your life.”
- “Am I feeling stressed?” Learning to recognize when you’re stressed or anxious is the first step in doing something (healthy) about it.
- “How can I change that?” Pick a healthy way to manage your stress (such as any of the above.)
Tristan also recommended taking four deep breaths. “Stressed out, shallow breathing is automatic, and you can take charge and do diaphragmatic or belly breathing to restore a sense of calm.” (Here’s more on diaphragmatic breathing.)
Stress can sabotage your studying efforts and affect other areas of your life. Fortunately, it doesn’t have to. By learning healthy coping strategies, you can traverse stressful situations without wrecking your well-being.