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Davis, California

Friday, September 24, 2021

Stressing your way to an A

During finals week, most of us will be cramming in the 24-Hour Study Room, holed up in some corner of Shields Library, or locked away in our apartments studying.

Finals week puts a lot of demands on students who might have three to four exams, final papers due and sometimes project presentations to give or portfolios to turn in.

Around this time, students get bombarded with excessive amounts of advice to de-stress. Common themes include taking a 10-minute nap, going for a run, meditating and most definitely getting enough sleep at night.

But 10-minute naps pretty easily turn into several hours of unintended sleep. Going for a run always takes longer than expected because people need to shower and eat. Meditating sounds nice, but in reality, not many people know how. And on the topic of reality, the stressed and strung-out will not be sleeping eight hours a night next week.

So for the overworked, slightly behind or potentially desperate students, de-stressing too much might not be ideal. In fact, figuring out how to take advantage of all this ready-made stress could increase finals weeks productivity.

“Some stress is actually a good thing, because it can get us motivated to take action and get something done — like studying,” wrote Diana Davis, psychologist and clinical director at CAPS, in an email interview.

“Stress” is usually a word associated with feeling overloaded, overwhelmed and anxious. In other words, it’s something people don’t want, which is probably why there’s such a proliferation of de-stressing advice. Davis clarified, however, that “stress” is something that challenges people and in that way, also allows people to rise to meet it.

“A little bit of stress is healthy,” said Bethany Bankston, a fourth-year clinical nutrition major, Mind Spa ambassador and Stress and Wellness ambassador at CAPS Clinic. “It helps you get stuff done. It’s sort of a motivation to get stuff done.”

The benefits of stress aren’t just about making the most of it, though. Oscar Jaramillo, a fourth-year psychology and human development double major, talked about the biological side of stress.

“Stress has to do with certain chemicals and hormones of your body reacting,” Jaramillo said. “One of those is cortisol, so when you’re under stress, cortisol levels go up, which is good. It keeps you alert and gives you that focus.”

So while too much stress is and will remain an unfortunate thing to suffer from, and of course no one should decide to stop sleeping, it’s important to consider the negative sides of de-stressing.

“A little bit of stress keeps you motivated; you feel like, ‘Oh, I have to get this done,’” Bankston said. “If you’re super relaxed, you’ll be [like], ‘Oh, I don’t have to get this done.’”

Not only is the potential loss of motivation a factor of not stressing enough, Davis wrote that those stress-management techniques everyone hears about really work best when they’re regularly practiced.

“Don’t wait until you are super stressed to start practicing,” Davis wrote. “Do it now. Learn and practice breathing exercises, and some basic stretching or yoga poses. Do these exercises during the quarter and you’ll be better prepared for the demands of exam week.”

But if de-stressing completely isn’t good for exams, Jaramillo cautions that over-stressing is never good either.

“It’s definitely unhealthy to pull two or three all-nighters all at once, because your body can’t handle that much stress and it can’t function without sleep,” Jaramillo said. “Come test day you’ll be completely out of your mind.”

Students’ grades won’t benefit from them exerting themselves to exhaustion.

“Try to find a little balance, maybe a little less sleep, a little more reading, but not too much,” Bankston said.

The right balance between stressing and de-stressing might not be the easiest to find, but if some stress is a good thing, then it should be noted that too much of a good thing can be bad.

“High levels of cortisol are actually bad for your immune system — you’re actually risking getting sick,” Jaramillo said. “The longer you stay in that sort of state, the more risk you’re in health-wise.”

Davis agreed, writing that students have to take breaks, getting up and moving around for 10 or 15 minutes for every one or two hours spent studying.

For those who can’t take a 10-minute nap without unintentionally sleeping for hours, Davis suggested focusing on what you can do, rather than what you can’t, and taking a 10-minute break while fully awake. Bankston also recommended deep breathing.

“The best breathing technique [is to] just breathe in for five seconds, let it out for five seconds,” Bankston said. “It’s kind of hard to do when you’re stressed, because it’s like, ‘Wow, five seconds is a long time,’ but you can do it while you’re studying.”

Davis added that people should just close their eyes and pay attention to their breathing, letting their shoulders relax and drop and paying attention to where they are holding stress. When the stress is located, they should use their breath to let the tension go.

Bankston also recommended timing short breaks to occur during lulls in the studying.

“You’re not 100 percent the whole time,” Bankston said, “If you just keep going at one paper, or one task, for a long time, you’re going to have those up and down moments anyway. When you just come to a roadblock, just think, ‘OK, I’m not making much progress on this; I should take a break and recollect and then try again.’”

Sometimes however, students can get so far behind that taking little breaks directly correlates to lost information. For the desperate case, if a student is far behind in his work or hasn’t done any of the reading, Jaramillo said cramming is probably their best bet.

“If it were me, I’d want to go down swinging,” Jaramillo said.

NAOMI NISHIHARA can be reached at features@theaggie.org.

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