Studying is stressful. Whether you’re attending a high-tension medical program or pursuing an online course, devoting your time and energy to learning is a complex process. What’s more, studying can compete with work, family, and other activities for your limited amount of energy. You will inevitably have times when you worry because something major comes up, such as a research paper or a final exam.
Stress is an entirely natural process. It doesn’t mean that you aren’t studying well or that you’re unable to process your course material. There is a positive kind of stress, “eustress,” which can actually serve as motivation to continue working, but that is not the sort of stress that is concerning. Distress, the negative kind of stress, is what causes problems and can affect your academic performance. Fortunately, distress can be controlled. Although the following tips cannot solve every tense moment, they will help minimize distress throughout your education.
Know the symptoms of stress
- Know the difference between normal and harmful stress. Remember, stress is a normal response, particularly to unpleasant surprises, scary incidents, and similar moments. The problem arises when you experience very frequent acute episodes of stress, or when it becomes a chronic, ongoing thing.
- Learn the toll that stress takes on your body. Frequent acute stress often shows itself with symptoms like recurring headaches, fatigue, insomnia or difficulty resting, and indigestion. Chronic stress often shows itself with grinding teeth, forgetfulness, overeating or excessive drinking, confusion, and other symptoms that may come to seem like the natural state of things. Stress also weakens the immune system, leading to frequent colds and infections. It leads to muscular tension and aches, hyperventilation, and heart arrhythmia.
If these symptoms describe what you have been feeling, admit it to yourself. The first step to handling your stress is recognizing it and admitting you need to deal with it.
First aid: What to do in the moment
You can begin to notice the symptoms of stress at any time. Even if you can handle what is on your plate right now, one small additional trivial thing can send you over the edge. If you feel yourself getting overwhelmed, use this advice to get an immediate handle on your stress levels.
- Breathe deeply. This will reoxygenate your blood and help you take a few moments to step back from a stressful situation. Lie down or sit up straight and put a hand on your abdomen, just below the navel. Breathe in slowly through your nose until your lungs are full. Hold the breath for a moment before exhaling. Repeating this several times should get you calm enough to look at things more clearly.
- Do something comforting. Are you hungry? Thirsty? Do you feel a headache coming on? Briefly changing scenery by walking to the water fountain or stepping out on the balcony will help you refocus. What’s more, by taking a clear step to make your situation better, however small it may be, you tell your body and brain that things are under control. Eat a healthy snack or drink water or tea rather than strong beverages or junk food.
- Use breaks to optimize productivity. If your specific task is something you can put down for a short while, do so. When you’re stressed out, you often aren’t doing your best work anyway. Even with time-critical tasks such as exams, you will be better served by taking a minute to ease yourself than by working yourself to a grinding halt by trying to push through to the end.
The long term: Understand yourself and take control
Stress usually follows patterns and cycles. By observing yourself and learning those cycles, you gain valuable information you need to train yourself to handle stress better. After you’ve dealt with your immediate situation, use these tips to build your own stress management plan.
- Look for your stress signs and stressors. You will find you have certain physical cues that tell you when you’re getting stressed, even if you don’t feel like you’re stressed. If a tense headache or a tightness in your shoulders are your cues, take those signs as a warning. Whatever you’re doing is stressing you, and you should calm yourself however you can. Watch for patterns to determine what academic subjects or tasks tend to bring on these symptoms.
- Chunk tasks. Huge tasks can be broken down into many smaller parts, which are much easier to tackle individually. A 15-page paper becomes less terrifying when you see it as three pages per day, then five pages of editing per day. You will also feel more accomplished when you complete numerous small tasks, rather than making a tiny bit of progress on a large one.
- Avoid procrastinating. Breaking up tasks won’t do you much good if you keep everything for the last minute. Resolve to spend a certain amount of time on your studies, and stick to that time. During that period, study and work on your class projects, and don’t be afraid to put them down afterwards. Studies show that regular, relaxed study helps you learn and recall more than last-minute cramming.
- Don’t be afraid to say no. You can and should keep up with your nonacademic responsibilities, but you aren’t under an obligation to help everyone who asks. You need time and mental space to study successfully; if this means skipping an event or turning down a request to work extra, you should feel free to do so.
- Take care of your health. Stress is a physical reaction, and by building up your health, you’ll be able to handle it better. Be sure to eat regular nutritious meals with a minimum of junk food, especially when studying. If you don’t get regular exercise, start now. Although it seems counterintuitive, exercise will actually give you more energy. Also, reduce or quit your bad habits, such as smoking or staying up late, as these habits drain your energy and make studying an uphill battle.