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As fall winds down and the end of this semester finally comes into focus, you may be near the end of your rope in terms of managing stress. Somewhere—amid exams, roommates, bills, work, papers, all that other day-to-day stuff, and maybe still trying to manage a social existence—you’re probably trying to keep it all together. Luckily, you’re not alone!

School happens one semester at a time, and stress can build as assignments crescendo toward the end of each one. How you handle pressure is crucial to navigating your way through.

Unpacking Stress

When you feel overwhelmed, it can seem like everything is one big ball of responsibility, each part indistinguishable from the next. The exhaustion that comes with that can leave you feeling anxious, restless, and frustrated—or worse.

Most students would probably agree with Brooke M., a sophomore at University of Mount Union in Alliance, Ohio, who attributes semester-end overload to a combination of exams, projects, and other loose ends still needing to be tied off. Knowing that one exam could make or break a class grade can bring the pressure up to the boiling point.

Piecing things apart can help you identify separate demands, set priorities, and develop a plan for accomplishing each one.

It’s important to understand that if you find yourself feeling worn out and overwhelmed, you’re in the same boat as most everybody around you (as well as those who came before). Talking with other students about how they handle stressful situations can help. Friends and classmates may be able to offer a tip or strategy you hadn’t thought of. The simple act of sharing how you’re feeling is an instant stress-reliever, too.

More about the physiological underpinnings of stress

Physiologically, you are constantly responding to the environment around you, in order to have the best chance of survival. Production and secretion of glucocorticoids (the most common hormone associated with stress is cortisol), is elevated during traumatic events or prolonged periods of stress. This originated early on in human existence. In the days of escaping woolly mammoths and marauding foes, this helped us act quickly and forcefully.

When you’re pushed to your limits—whether physically, mentally, or emotionally—hormones are pumped out excessively by the body’s endocrine glands. Increased levels of these stress hormones have substantial effects on the immune system, metabolism, and your brain function.

While the end of the semester may feel, literally, like the end of the world in your body, you know in your mind that it’s not. Once you understand your body’s response to stress and how it affects you, you can start developing ways to cope with it, and even counteract your natural “fight or flight” response.

Leo Reid, a counselor at West Texas A&M University, recommends that students try the following to make their way through the end of the semester:
  • Identify the source of your stress.
  • Acknowledge and monitor increasing levels of mental fatigue and anxiety, before they become overwhelming.
  • Prioritize your task lists and break them into manageable parts. Work with a mentor or peer tutor if you need help.
  • Set incremental goals to stay on track and feel a sense of accomplishment.
  • Maintain a strong social support system of people who can relate to your current state of mind. Find ways to unwind together.
  • Maintain a healthy physical state with proper nutrition, sleep, and exercise.
More about managing multiple priorities.

More information and techniques for relaxing.

Passing Chemistry

Coping with stress starts with understanding it. Dr. Maxwell Maltz wrote Psycho-Cybernetics: A New Way to Get More Living Out of Life in 1960, and it’s still regarded as one of the best books on facing challenges. In it, Maltz breaks down the meaning of “stress.”

He prefers the term “mental fatigue” for referring to what we commonly label as stress. Think about that term and how it fits those semester-end feelings; it’s likely very relevant. You’ve been taxing your brain, possibly with little rest for several months, to get through assignments and exams. So, managing finals, end-of-semester activities, and holiday plans might feel like it requires more effort and energy than you’ve got left.

In addition to the mental fatigue caused by consistent use of your brainpower, there’s also a hormonal response, which has a very real impact on how you feel, both physically and emotionally.

I know I’m not the only one who’s been told, “Get over it; it’s all just in your head.” As it turns out, there’s not much accuracy in that old cliché. It’s in the rest of your body, too!

Productive Stress Relief

On some campuses, it is a “badge of honor” to feel overwhelmed, or to pull all-nighters and set self-care aside. Ultimately, this mindset can be counterproductive.

Giving yourself time to relax will actually make you more productive in the long run. When you return to your work, you’ll be able to concentrate, prioritize, and focus energy on your studies, rather than on how stressed-out you feel.

Janice A., a senior at the University of Montana in Missoula, says that yoga and knitting are two activities that she can turn to when the tension starts to mount. Graduate student Christina L., who attends Notre Dame de Namur University in Belmont, California, finds studying in the mountains to be a relaxing approach to dealing with semester-end challenges.

These types of activities share the common theme of productive relaxation: a release from the pressure in a calm, quiet setting, while still doing things that help to prepare you mentally for your exams and papers. Yoga and meditation, for example, help you focus on proper breathing, which is an essential part of unraveling tension. They can also help you learn how to refocus your mind when it starts to spin, like if you’re in an exam and find that your anxiety level is high.

Take a Course in Relaxation

Reid points out that many people have to literally learn how to relax. For some, stress feels like a normal state of being, so tuning in to it isn’t something they are used to doing.

If high stress levels feel like your status quo, you may want to seek out opportunities to learn concrete stress-management techniques. Many campuses offer coaching by a health educator, counselor, massage therapist (through the health service or recreation and sports center), or a peer education group.

There are many proven options for managing the physical and emotional symptoms of mental fatigue. Some to explore are:

  • Guided imagery: Focus on a relaxing environment in your mind and allow yourself to feel as though you are there.
  • Monitor your heart rate: Tune in to your breathing and work to make it more deep and slow.
  • Progressive muscle relaxation: Close your eyes. Tighten and release the muscles in each area of your body, starting at the eyes and working all the way down to your toes.
  • Yoga, meditation, and tai chi: These classic forms of slow movement and concentration help you focus on your breathing and the mind/body connection.

Success in school is pieced together by individual accomplishments, each of which takes a fair amount of effort. Near the end of each semester, that has no doubt amounted to a considerable load.

Remember that you and your peers have all been through a lot since summer. Some may try to hide it, but everybody is feeling pressure.

Rather than getting yourself down by thinking about what you didn’t do, focus on the things that worked well and how to wrap up the semester on a positive note. When you have finished your exams and final projects, you can look back and figure out what you can do to better manage assignments and other responsibilities going forward.

Take Action!

  • Prioritize different tasks and develop a plan for accomplishing each one.
  • Talk with other students about how they handle stress.
  • Think about stress as “mental fatigue.” Your brain needs breaks to recharge.
  • Consider your body’s response to stress. The feeling of being pressured isn’t “just in your head.”
  • Learn effective stress-reduction techniques that you can do anywhere.
  • Take advantage of stress-management courses offered by your school.

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