Stressed Out

December 9, 2018

Finals can be the cause of cold sweats, sleepless nights, and nervous fidgeting. While there is a lot riding on comprehensive exams, they are simply the culmination of all your hard work throughout the semester.  You won’t be able to perform well on the exams if you’re too stressed out, so stay cool.  That’s easy to say but very hard to do.  Here are some tips on how to de-stress during finals week.

Early and Often

Probably the easiest thing to do is to avoid the stress all together.  If you start studying early by organizing and reviewing your notes a couple weeks before your exam, then you won’t feel the sudden push during finals week.  Creating a study schedule (and sticking to it) is another way to avoid the stress that comes with feeling unprepared.  Setting specific goals is a way to break the immensity of studying everything into achievable chunks.  Dr. John Grohol of says “For study time, set specific goals for each study session throughout the day, too. For instance, ‘Tuesday morning, I’m going to review Chapters 14, 15, and 16, write summaries of these chapters, and finish re-reading my class notes covering this material.’”


It may seem like there isn’t enough time in the day to get everything done.  But you really need to avoid late night study sessions and don’t believe people when they say that ‘all-nighters’ are a college rite-of-passage.  Sleep deprivation has consistently been shown to have significant mental health impact.  Dr. John Grohol tells us that “Your brain cells renew [during sleep] and studies show that people who don’t get adequate sleep do worse on cognitive and memory tasks.”  Managing your time will help you prevent having to stay up late.  Probably the easiest way to manage your time is to avoid time-traps.  Social media and video games are the biggest time sinks for most college students.  If you struggle with these, then ask your roommate to hide your phone or game controller for the week.

Use Your Resources

Take advantage of campus activities designed to reduce your stress.  Student Affairs offices hold brain-break activities.  There are things like crafting, painting, and henna tattoos.  Many of the events offer snacks too – if you’re lucky (…or maybe unlucky…) enough to be at Brown University you may even get a donut delivered by a naked runner.  The University of Texas Austin brings dogs onto campus because cuddling with a puppy melts all stress immediately.  Libraries are usually open for extended hours and dining halls may also stay open late or have special treats.  Check your Student Union for flyers about events or check your Student Affairs website.  Here are some examples of cool activities at UT Austin and Penn State.

Get Moving

Make sure you prioritize your physical health and your mental health will follow.  Eat nutritious meals.  Get lots of carbs and proteins and avoid too many sugars.  It may be tempting to use caffeine to give you some extra energy but caffeine causes your blood pressure to rise and can lead to anxiety.  It will also disrupt your very important sleep patterns.  Another way to keep your brain operating at full capacity is to exercise.  You don’t need an epic gym session, just taking a brisk walk or jog around campus will get your blood flowing.

Share the Pain

Study groups are a great way to socialize while also accomplishing some studying.  Sharing the stress of preparing for finals helps to alleviate the feeling of urgency.  You might also get some tips on concepts you didn’t think about.  But study groups can also devolve into social events.  If that happens and then you find yourself with less time for real studying, then you’ll only add to your stress.  So use study groups as an addition to your normal studying habits.


You’re a good student.  You worked hard all semester.  Lots of students have gone through the final for this course and they were just like you.  Keeping a good perspective on finals helps you to stay cool and perform well on the exams.  You can call home or talk with friends to remind you of the other important things in your life.

A healthy level of stress helps you to prepare for exams with the seriousness they require but too much stress will prevent you from being able to study.  If you’re stressed during the exam, your memory will not function as well and your critical thinking will suffer. So take steps to prevent stress from building and find healthy ways to let off a little steam.

Warning Signs

One final note is to be aware of the signs when normal stress becomes a health concern.  It’s time to talk to a mental health counselor if you have the following symptoms (from WebMD):

  • Excessive, ongoing worry and tension
  • An unrealistic view of problems
  • Restlessness or a feeling of being “edgy”
  • Irritability
  • Muscle tension
  • Headaches
  • Sweating
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Nausea
  • The need to go to the bathroom frequently
  • Tiredness
  • Trouble falling or staying asleep
  • Trembling
  • Being easily startled

Additionally, if your heart starts racing, you can’t catch your breath, feel dizzy or faint, then you may be having a panic attack.  You need to go to the clinic and follow up with an appointment with a professional.  Colleges and universities offer many mental health services.  If you’re having any of these symptoms, check in with your school’s mental health professionals.

Psych Central is the Internet’s largest and oldest independent mental health online resource.  Dr. John Grohol is the founder & CEO of Psych Central. He is an author, researcher and expert in mental health.  His article on dealing with stress during final exams is an excellent resource.

Huffington Post has a good article on how to manage stress during finals week.

The cover photo is by Firesam! on Flickr.

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