For the nearly 20 million college students in the U.S., one of the most stressful times of the year comes at the end of the semester, as they prepare for final exams, graduation and – for many seniors – yet another life transition.
Almost 60% of college students report they are experiencing more than average amounts of stress during the year. Over one-third of college students say stress has negatively impacted their academic performance, which includes getting lower grades. While stress can negatively impact students, as one who teaches stress management, I know that there are ways to use stress to one’s advantage.
Here are some ways college students can maintain their well-being as they deal with final exams and everything that goes along with graduating.
1. Accept stress
Colleges and universities often encourage their students to have a “stress free” spring. While this message is sent with good intentions, it may give students unrealistic expectations.
The reality is the end of the semester is a stressful time, so trying to stay “stress-free” may do more harm than good. That can happen if students begin to stress over the fact that they are stressed. This in turn may lead students to avoid stressful situations in order to not make their situations worse. For example, students may avoid or put off studying, finishing a paper or going to work as a means to reduce stress.
This kind of avoidance can in turn create more stress, because the actual stressful situation does not go away, and can lead to more problems, including feeling depressed. While this avoidant approach may seem instinctive, research shows accepting the stresses of life may actually protect some students from experiencing negative emotions, such as fear, often associated with stress.
2. Change your mindset about stress
Stress can be harmful and dangerous, but it can also make people more productive, focused and lead to personal growth.
The mindset you adopt regarding stress is important. Some research even suggests your beliefs about stress can become a self-fulfilling prophecy. That means if you believe the effects of stress are harmful, they may be more likely to be harmful. Conversely, if you believe the effects are helpful, then you may experience more postive outcomes, according to Stanford psychology professor Alia Crum.
Adopting a more positive mindset about stress may lead to positive outcomes.
3. Attach meaning to your stress
Research shows attaching meaning to the stressors in your life can improve how you deal with them.
Psychologist Kelly McGonigal, author of “The Upside of Stress,” argues a meaningful life is a stressful life. That is to say, the most common sources of stress in people’s lives overlap with the greatest sources of meaning. For students, it’s important to remember that all the things they must complete to get through school – papers, tests and projects – are leading to the achievement of goals, the realization of dreams and the fulfillment of passions.
4. Use your support network
It’s important and beneficial for students to reach out to their social supports, the people they trust most, and share what they are going through.
When students seek social support, it may lead to effective coping and can change the way they appraise or evaluate their stressors. In other words, stressful situations seem less threatening and negative. Utilizing social resources has been shown to promote physical and mental health, provide a sense of control, and even help boost the immune system.
5. Adopt an attitude of gratitude
When students are stressed, it becomes easy for negativity to seep into their lives. When this happens there may be a tendency to overlook the positive. If students can tap into what is right in their lives and express genuine gratefulness despite all the stress they are experiencing, they will notice positive changes, including feeling less stressed. Adopting an attitude of gratitude can improve mental health and overall well-being. So go ahead and tap into this positive emotion. Stress may not go away completely, but students will be better equipped to cope with and manage whatever stress remains.
Jennifer Wegmann, Professor of Health and Wellness Studies, Binghamton University, State University of New York