Stress is the wear and tear our bodies experience as we adjust to our changing environment. In life, we can’t avoid all stress, so our goal is not to eliminate stress but learn how to manage it. Ideally, you’ll find your optimal level of stress that will motivate you instead of overwhelming you.
You may notice as you go through life that some causes of stress are in your control, but many are not; some stress is inevitable and even good events cause us stress; and all change is stressful, we cannot totally avoid stress in our lives.
There are many different sources of stress including but not limited to:
- Life changes and times of great change
- Fear of the unknown
- Pressure to succeed
- Uncomfortable situations
- Co-op interviews during mid-terms
- Moving house
What are the Signs of Stress?
Signs range from physical to emotional and are different for everyone, but can include:
- Hot flashes
- The chills
- Skin flushing
- Loss of appetite
- Muscular tightness
- Light headedness
- Tics or twitches
- Increased irritability
- Poor focus and motivation
- Avoiding academic tasks
- Feelings of failure
How Do You Cope With Stress?
If your difficulty lies in part with a physical reaction to stressful situations, you can address this with physical means. Deep breathing, stretching, yoga, guided imagery, and meditation are some ways to trigger the relaxation response. Other physical strategies include:
- Healthy sleep patterns – Try to maintain at least seven hours of sleep a night, and sleep at the same time every day if possible.
- Nutrition – Try to eat three healthy meals a day based on nutrition guidelines in Canada’s Food Guide.
- Exercise – Even low impact exercise like walking around campus or taking the stairs instead of the elevator can make a big difference.
Cognitive strategies are more focused on the emotional and spiritual signs of stress. Try doing ones of these cognitive strategies the next time you find stress symptoms starting up:
- Gratitude journaling: Every evening, as part of your bedtime routine, write down five things you are grateful for about that day. Some days they will be amazing things, sometimes simple joys, such as a walk in the sunshine or a friend’s smile. On tough days, focus on the basics (Ex. food on the table, I got out of bed, etc.)
- Time management and study strategies.
- Spend time regularly with people doing activities that are engaging and relaxing.
- Encourage positive self-talk and beliefs within yourself.
It can be easy to feel stressed during exam season. It can manifest in many different ways including muscle tension, headaches, upset stomach, trouble sleeping, and just generally feeling overwhelmed. Different people feel stress around exam season for a variety of reasons including worrying about possible failure, not feeling prepared, feeling pressure from family, feeling like you have to compete with your peers, or having other life-events or difficulties happening at the same time as exams. Whatever the symptoms or reasons there are some simple strategies you can do to help minimize some of the stress.
What to do Before the Exam?
- Write down the exam time and location in a place you aren’t likely to forget, like your planner or your phone. Knowing when and where you need to go in advance can limit your day-of worries.
- Find yourself a quiet and distraction-free study zone. Bring everything you think you might need with you to your zone to minimize the number of times you feel like you need to interrupt your studies.
- Take regular short breaks. Aim for 5-10 minutes about once an hour. Try to get up and move around and take a drink of water.
- Connect with your professor or TA. If there’s a concept you are struggling with or are unsure of the exam details they can help clarify the details.
- Don’t focus on perfection. Strive to do your best but accept that you won’t get every question right every time.
- Practice guided imagery. Imagine a particularly challenging exam going well. Picture yourself feeling relaxed, confident, and calm. See the situation going well. What happens? How would it look if you responded well to the situation? Hold that image in your mind, keep going until the situation is complete.
What to do on the Day of the Exam?
- Eat a healthy breakfast. Eating a balanced meal before your exam can help your body focus on the task at hand instead of how hungry you are.
- Prepare the night before. Organize what you need to take with you to the exam and layout your clothes the night before the exam. That way you have fewer things to focus on before you leave.
- Arrive early. Give yourself time to get to the exam without worrying. Once in the room, pick a seat away from any distractions like doors where people may come and go during the exam.
- Remember to breathe. If you find yourself tensing up or breathing rapidly, take a few slow, long, deep breaths to calm yourself down.
- Read through the instructions and questions thoroughly. If you are stuck on a question, trying answering the next one and coming back later.
What to do After the Exam?
- Limit your post-exam analysis. Don’t focus on everything you think went wrong. Try to focus on the things you know went well and try to let it go. You won’t know the results until you get them, so speculating is really just fruitless worry.
- Treat yourself. Do something you enjoy or get yourself a celebratory treat. You worked hard to get to this point, whatever the result, and you deserve something nice.
Guided imagery – Falling Leaf
Try the following guided imagery exercise. Stare at a point on the wall across from you. Visualize a leaf on this spot. With each breath, count backwards from 20 to 1 as you watch the leaf slowly drifting to the ground. At 1, the leaf reaches the ground and you are deeply relaxed.
Imagine a tree standing beside you. Breathing deeply, feel your feet rooted into the ground. Imagine the depth of the roots and the strength under you, supporting you. Imagine your body is a solid trunk, but one that is flexible and giving. Allow it to sway, slightly bending in the breeze, your arms open like branches, your hands turned like leaves towards the sun. Breathe deeply and think about the strength and beauty of the tree. Feel the depth of the ground and all its support.
Examining and being aware of your thoughts and feelings can help deal with emotional symptoms of stress and point your mind to more constructive ways of thinking.
Stop, Calm, and Switch
Notice your automatic negative thoughts. Say “Stop” when they happen. Think about something pleasant and say “Calm”, then switch your thinking to a positive thought. An example could be “Nobody is perfect and I am doing my best.” Keep practising this as you go through your day.
Understand Distorted Thinking Patterns
There are many examples of distorted thoughts such as:
- All or nothing thinking – Thinking in black or white categories. For example, a straight-A student who receives a B on an exam concludes “Now I’m a total failure”.
- Overgeneralizations – Using words like always and never. For example, a person asks someone out on a date and they decline, the person concludes “I’m never going to get a date. No one will ever want me”.
- Mental filters – Ignoring positives and dwelling on negatives. For example, if you lose your spot in a presentation for 30 seconds but the remaining 20 minutes goes really well and you conclude “I gave a horrible presentation”.
- Jumping to conclusions – Mind reading or making assumptions about outcomes without evidence.
Understanding our distorted thinking patterns can help us to counter them and can help us feel better by thinking more clearly.
Guided Relaxation or Meditation
Time commitment: 10 – 15 minutes a day
Studies show that just 10 minutes a day of meditation can help lower anxiety and stress. The great thing about meditation is you can do it virtually anywhere thanks to the many apps that are now available for your phone. Some of our favourites include: Calm or Headspace.
Time commitment: 20 – 60 minutes a day
We’ve all heard about the health benefits of getting a little bit of physical activity every day. Physical activity helps with our mental health as well. If you are so inclined, Waterloo has lots of different athletics facilities, intramural teams, and classes available. If you aren’t a gym person, even just swapping your car for your bike and biking in can be beneficial. There are also a lot of 10 – 15-minute yoga videos on YouTube you can use to get a dose of physical activity in the comfort of your own home.
Time commitment: 15 – 60 minutes a day
A little bit of laughter goes a long way. Whether it is watching a 30-minute episode of a comedy show you like, listening to an audio version of your favourite standup, or listening to a humorous podcast, adding a little bit of levity to your day can help you refocus your mind. A podcast like The Hilarious World of Depression can provide a light-hearted take on a serious subject while helping you learn strategies for dealing with life’s ups and downs. The Hilarious World offers a series of conversations with comedians and other creative folks and how they’ve dealt with their depression.
Time commitment: Many small moments in a day
The way you talk to yourself can positively impact your stress levels. Be aware and notice your thoughts as you have them and examine the way you are making yourself feel. If you find yourself thinking something like “I have so much work to do, I’ll never get it done”, counter that thought with something more positive like “Yes, there is a lot to do, but if I break it into manageable chunks and plan my time accordingly, I can do my best to get it all done.” Other gentle and kind thoughts you can think to yourself are simple phrases like “I am doing my best” or “I will be okay.”
Reaching Out to Your Support System
Time commitment: 10 – 60 minutes a day
Speaking with someone who you have a strong connection with, even if it is just about the weather or what you’ve done this week, can help relax you and reduce the feeling of stress you might feel. Even if you feel like your strongest connections aren’t nearby, maybe you’re on co-op in a city you don’t know or maybe you’re at Waterloo for school but you’re from British Columbia, you can still set up a Skype or Facetime call. If you have a support system nearby, try to get together with them as often as you can. This doesn’t need to be just a chat about what is stressing you out, this could be setting up a weekly get together with 2-3 friends to play a board game.
Time commitment: 20 – 30 minutes a day
This could be playing or listening to music. You don’t need to be a prodigy to play an instrument. Taking 20 – 30 minutes to strum anything on a guitar or even your sixth-grade recorder can cause your brain to think in a different way than it does when you are cramming differential equations. Listening to music can be relaxing too. Anything that calms or inspires you will work. Try putting on your headphones and lying on the floor with your eyes closed so that you are only focused on the music. Don’t know what music calms you? There are many playlists already made on apps like Spotify and Pinterest that you can try out.
Time commitment: 20 – 45 minutes a day
Painting, cooking a new recipe, knitting, beading, scrapbooking, building models, or doing a puzzle are all ways to exercise your creative side. Practicing a creative hobby can help you engage different parts of your brain than what you use day-to-day studying.
Choose What Works For You
There’s no one thing that works for everyone. And the same thing might not work for you all the time. Sometimes you need to choose a menu of relaxation activities throughout the week to help you engage your relaxation response. Maybe you meditate three days a week at lunch, catch a yoga class once a week, and knit while you catch your favourite TV show at night. Combining many different strategies can help lower your stress levels.