The end of the term strikes fear into the hearts of many college students. For students already dealing with anxiety or stress, finals week can seem unmanageable.
According to MentalHelp, college students stress out about finals more than any other topic, including their job prospects and finances.
The pandemic has only increased stress and anxiety among this group. According to a Fall 2020 survey from the Jed Foundation, the pandemic negatively impacted the emotional health of 63% of college students. Even outside of finals week, 82% of students face anxiety, and 62% report trouble concentrating.
But finals don't have to drain your mental reserves. Here are our tips to help manage your mental health during finals week.
7 Tips to Help Manage Your Mental Health During Finals Week
Undergrads who are juggling multiple finals can easily become overwhelmed. Creating a schedule helps you pace yourself and avoid burnout.
What's the key to a good finals week schedule? First, be realistic: No, you can't cram a semester's worth of material into a single all-night study session.
"Cramming is an ineffective study strategy," says researcher Sean Kang. Instead, spacing out study sessions over a longer period of time helps students retain more information.
A schedule can also make a big difference from a mental health perspective. Rather than drowning in a massive amount of material, planning ahead provides structure.
A schedule also helps you avoid the problem of cramming for your early finals, then running out of time to study for exams later in the week.
Should you study in one dedicated spot or relocate frequently? According to UCLA psychologist Robert Bjork, staying in one spot is counterproductive. Bjork explains that "subsequent recall of information is enhanced if it's been studied in a variety of environmental settings." So, move around to different study spots, if you can.
Similarly, changing up your study schedule also improves focus. Instead of studying one subject for an entire day, mix up the schedule by incorporating small blocks of study time for different courses.
Relocating doesn't necessarily mean leaving your apartment or dorm room, either. Even moving to different spots in the same room can help information sink in.
It might seem counterintuitive, but putting down the books to get a good night's sleep can mean higher grades. In a 2015 study, researchers found that 82% of students slept less than seven hours the night before an exam — and their grades suffered. Students who slept longer the night prior to a test received higher grades.
A 2019 study at MIT found similar results. After asking students to wear Fitbits for a full semester to test the relationship between sleep and grades, researchers discovered a strong connection between the two.
The study also found that it's not just hours of sleep that matter — it's also when you sleep. Students who went to bed after 2 a.m. and slept at least seven hours performed worse than those who slept the same number of hours but hit the sack earlier.
Consistency also mattered. Students who slept a similar number of hours each night had higher grades than those who slept in some days and pulled all-nighters on other days.
Psychiatry professor Robert Stickgold explained, "The overall course grades for students averaging six and a half hours of sleep were down 50% from other students who averaged just one hour more sleep."
Different study techniques work for different people. Some people can only study with music in the background or a highlighter in their hand. For others, reading aloud helps concepts sink in. Whatever technique works for you, make sure you do it in a healthy way.
That means approaching studying from the right mindset. As PsychCentral explains, how you approach studying matters as much as what you do. Thinking positively, cutting off catastrophic thoughts, and avoiding negative comparisons can put you in the right mindset to absorb new material. It's also important to pace yourself to avoid burnout.
Taking breaks can improve your focus and performance. A study at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign found that students who took breaks were able to focus better.
Psychology professor Alejandro Lleras explains, "From a practical standpoint, our research suggests that, when faced with long tasks (such as studying before a final exam or doing your taxes), it is best to impose brief breaks on yourself. Brief mental breaks will actually help you stay focused on your task!"
The key, though, is to watch the clock. A brief mental break can help, but long or disruptive activities could actually hurt. Consider a 10-minute walk to get the mental benefits of a break, plus fresh air and exercise.
Finals week puts students under a large amount of pressure — but remember that you'll go through multiple finals weeks in your college life. Instead of pressuring yourself to perform well, keep things in perspective. Finals are just another test, and in most classes they represent a fraction of your course grade.
If you find yourself growing increasingly anxious, take a step back. The Anxiety and Depression Association of America recommends exercise as a great way to relieve stress and help situational anxiety. Studies show that even a 10-minute walk can elevate your mood for hours. And remember to take care of yourself by eating regularly and getting enough sleep.
Finals week can seem all-consuming, but remember that you're a whole person with needs outside of a single week during the semester. Being kind to yourself can help you both academically and from a mental health perspective.
Approach your exams with self-compassion. That means dropping the judgmental or critical thoughts about yourself and practicing self-kindness during this time.
What If You're Still Struggling?
Sometimes you get enough sleep, stick to your schedule, and use calming techniques — but you still struggle with anxiety and stress. If you find yourself stuck in unhealthy patterns, reach out for help. Lean on your friends and family or contact your campus health center to talk to a professional.
Take a deep breath. Finals week will pass, and the stress management techniques you develop can help you for years to come.
Genevieve Carlton holds a Ph.D. in history from Northwestern University. After earning her doctorate in early modern European history, Carlton worked as an assistant professor of history at the University of Louisville, where she developed new courses on the history of science, Renaissance Italy, and the witch trials. Carlton has published five peer-reviewed articles in top presses and a monograph with the University of Chicago Press. She also earned tenure with a unanimous vote before relocating to Seattle. Learn more about Carlton's work at genevievecarlton.com.
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