We're often told that college is the best time of our lives. We think it's all “eat, sleep, rave, repeat,” and somehow we will end up with brilliant degrees at the end of it.
I hate to break it to you, but that's just not how it works. (Unless you're an actual genius, in which case you're more than likely to drop out of college and create your own billion-dollar startup, anyway.)
It's more than likely you're going to be overrun with stress at some point as you come to the end of the academic year with deadlines, exams and job applications piling up.
As it's Stress Awareness Month, don't shy away from the fact that it'll be a testing time ahead. Unless you want to wind up sobbing into your Mountain Dew in the middle of the night with a floor full of notes to revise before a morning exam (I've been there), do the following and tackle your stress head-on.
Here are nine tips I would tell my younger, frenzied collegiate self:
1. Acknowledge the stress.
There's nothing worse than feeling utterly overwhelmed by endless papers, presentations, grant proposals and exams on the horizon. While oscillating between a blissful state of denial and binge-eating your way through the Domino's menu may seem like the best way to get through the coming weeks (trust me, it's not), take five to 10 minutes, however long you need, to identify what exactly is causing your stress.
Is it that you feel underprepared for testing, or that there are too many assignments piling up on the same deadline? Does the stress stem from feeling that your peers are cruising along while you are struggling to keep up? Write it all down. Recognizing the factors that are adding up to your stress is the first step toward managing it.
2. Make a plan, super(wo)man.
A lot of stress stems from feeling like you're not in control, and coming up with a systematic and viable plan of attack will go a long way to restoring faith in yourself. Create an hour-by-hour schedule of the next couple of weeks, factor in different papers, study breaks and a make tangible start and end to your workday. Doing these things will help quell the despair of having too many deadlines.
If revising a years' worth of notes seems an insurmountable task, break your papers down into core themes and streamline your lecture and reading notes into bite-sized chunks (A6 notecards are your saviors). Whatever your plan is, be sure to make it realistic and achievable. Sticking to it will mean regaining control of what was causing you stress.
3. Separate work and living spaces.
Sleeping and working in the same space may seem efficient if you roll out of bed and go straight to your desk. But doing this will likely endanger a healthy work-life balance. Instead, find a desk at a library or quiet corner in your faculty to use as a workspace. Be strict about keeping your dorm room a work-free area so there is a physical, and therefore mental, separation between where you work and where you rest.
4. Talk it out.
Speak to whoever you feel most comfortable with: friends, family, lovers or lecturers. Pencil in regular tea dates (I recommend green tea as a stress-reducing option) and phone calls with all of the above to break up your day and give yourself something other than work to think about.
If you feel more comfortable speaking with someone independent, consider seeing a therapist or counselor. Your college should be able to help with finding someone local.
5. Take some me time.
Treat yourself to a bit of alone time at the end of each working day. Read addictive fiction that's completely unrelated to your major (think "The Hunger Games"). Watch reruns of your favorite TV shows (preferably comedies). Run a hot bath if you have a tub. (Bubbles are essential.) Do things that are purely unrelated to your studies and allow you to sufficiently relax and unwind by yourself before tackling the next day.
6. Drink plenty of water.
This one sounds like a no brainer, but it's often overlooked. Research shows that even mild dehydration can make you lethargic and moody, causing headaches and migraines in some cases. The good news is drinking enough water will keep these symptoms at bay. An easy way to keep track of your daily water intake is to keep a 2 liter water bottle with you at all times. Fill it every morning, and make sure it's drained before you go to sleep.
Exercise should be in your daily routine for health and fitness reasons, but it is also very handy for keeping stress at bay. A half-hour jog, bike ride or yoga will release endorphins, a neurochemical produced in the brain that brings out feelings of happiness and euphoria.
Focusing on the task at hand also means you are not thinking about what is stressing you out, so be sure to not skip out on regular walks and workouts. If you're still in need of motivation, sign up to a gym and add the classes onto your work schedule, or enlist in the services of a willing exercise buddy so that you're encouraging each other to keep exercising.
8. Hang out with animals.
Encounters with animals, however brief, are also another way to provide rapid stress relief. Research shows that interacting with pets increases endorphin production while lowering blood pressure and stress hormones such as cortisol. Although pets are not easily accessible at college, offer to dog walk or volunteer at a local shelter in order to interact with animals.
Barring that, head to the nearest aquarium. Studies have shown that even staring at fish tanks is more relaxing than proven meditation techniques.
Stress and sleep chase each other in a vicious cycle. The more stressed you are, the less sleep you get. In addition, the quality of sleep goes down, which reinforces the feelings of stress when you are not well-rested. To break this unforgiving circle and ensure you're getting at least seven hours of good sleep, be sure to wind down adequately at the end of each day by leaving your work.
You need to put some distance in between yourself and your work so that when you are getting ready for bed, your mind isn't racing through what still needs to be done. Follow the lead of the Danes – the people of the happiest nation in the world – and create a "hygge" (cozy) place of rest filled with candles and soft furnishings. A hot cup of tea before bed will also help relax the body and mind before another day's work.
College is meant to be fun, educational and memorable. It will be, if you look after yourself and manage the joys and stresses of being a student. It will all be over soon enough, and you'll find yourself thrust into a whole new world where there isn't enough time to learn and debate for the sake of doing so. Instead of spending these days buried under the stresses of being a student, try out a few of these tips and enjoy your student status to the fullest.