With the winter holidays tantalizingly close, several students are counting down the days until the end of the semester. Instead of being a relief, the end of the fall semester, with the ordeal of final exams and the rush to make preparations for the holidays, can be a time of extreme stress.
“At this time of year there are so many factors that converge, such as final exams coming, travel plans, family visits, holiday responsibilities and, for some, the fear of graduation approaching, which can result in a strong sense of a loss of control,” said USF psychology professor David Diamond.
Recent studies suggest that incidents of stress are increasingly common among young people. According to a report on CNN’s Web site, a survey found that 43 percent of women and 37 percent of men between the ages of 18 and 34 reported an increase in stress during the holidays. In a 2003 study conducted by the University of Pittsburgh, more than 80 percent of college campuses reported increases in psychological problems such as stress, anxiety and panic attacks.
The danger for students is that it can undo a semester’s worth of work by affecting their ability to perform in their finals, Diamond said.
“In general, the brain-cognitive systems that are most adversely affected by stress are those involved in decision-making and fact-based processing, which unfortunately are just what you need to be functioning optimally as you prepare for and take your final exams,” Diamond said.
But stress doesn’t always have to be harmful, said USF psychology professor Kristen Salomon.
“It depends on the person and how they perceive and cope with their stress,” Salomon said. “Stress can be a motivator. It can energize you to get a lot done.”
Nevertheless, Salomon said, when people perceive stress as overwhelming or uncontrollable, they are unlikely to use effective coping strategies.
One way not to cope, according to Diamond, is to seek comfort in fast food.
“It’s … known that diet can influence how you respond to stress,” Diamond said. “High fat and high carbohydrate diets, such as having a cheeseburger and fries on a daily basis, tend to cause stress hormones to overreact in response to stress-provoking situations. A low-fat diet is not only good for your health; it’s also a way to reduce your stress reactivity and to maintain better health of your brain cells.”
In addition to eating healthy, planning ahead to avoid falling behind with papers and studying for exams will help alleviate stress.
“Prioritize what you have to do and try not to do too much,” said USF psychology professor Cheryl Kirstein. “Cut back where you can.”
Kirstein recommends exercise as an effective way to decrease stress, increase endorphins and improve a student’s mood. She also said that there are many good relaxation methods, such as yoga and meditation.
Another option for students is to attend events such as the Final Exam Cram this Wednesday night at Traditions Hall. It is open to all students and will start at 7 p..m. There will be free food and free professional massages.
A further option for students is the USF Counseling Center for Human Development (CCHD), which is open from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday. It offers free counseling for students with all kinds of problems, including anxiety and stress.
As far as bad ways to deal with stress, Salomon has a few things for students to avoid.
“Procrastinating and partying are poor ways to combat stress,” said Salomon. “Avoidance is not a good coping strategy.”
Salomon said students should remember that the end of the semester can also be stressful for professors.
She said professors have all kinds of things to do at the end of the semester much like students, like writing exams, grading exams, grading papers and calculating final grades. She also said professors may have paperwork due to their department, theses and dissertations to read and holiday preparations of their own.
“Professors may have stressors that students don’t have, such as dealing with the pressure to obtain grants to maintain their research programs, concern about being awarded tenure, and at the same time figuring out how to work 60 hours a week and still spend time with their families,” Diamond said.