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Bodies react to finals with stress, director suggests ways to cope

Anna Boarini | Tuesday, December 6, 2011

The week of non-stop exams, papers and presentations known as finals is enough to make even the most levelheaded student feel a bit on edge. According to Catherine DeCleene, director of Women’s Health at Saint Mary’s College, stress is the body’s natural response to these psychological demands.

“When our bodies and minds deal with stress on a constant basis, it starts taking a toll, both physically and mentally,” she said.

DeCleene said stress is a normal part of life that can sometimes have benefits.

“At its best, stress provides us with the means to express our talent and energy to pursue those things we want,” she said. “It can compel us to action and focus our intentions.”

Although stress can focus a student’s efforts, it can also negatively affect one’s wellbeing, DeCleene said.

“The demands of a college student are intense in a number of areas: academic stress, social stress and financial stress,” she said. “For some college students, stress adds up to the point where it starts to negatively affect their physical and emotional health.”

DeCleene said unrelated stress-inducing events can compound the effects.

“Very often, the physiological and psychological reactions to stress will tend to interact and react with one another to produce additional stress,” she said.

Developing coping mechanisms is crucial to avoiding potentially serious complications, she said.

“If we don’t begin to implement coping or stress-reduction strategies at this point, the stress can build to the point where more serious physical and emotional problems appear,” she said.

While there are similarities to the stress college men and women both deal with, some stress is worse for women.

“According to statistics collected from the American College Health Association, 91 percent of female college students reported feeling overwhelmed by all they had to do in the previous 12 months, 14 percentage points higher than college men,” she said.

One of the ways women deal with stress differently than men is through seeking supportive relationships.

“Findings suggest that while women are more likely to report physical symptoms associated with stress, they are doing a better job connecting with others in their lives and, at times, these connections are important to their stress management strategies,” she said.

Both men and women default to some unideal common coping mechanisms, DeCleene said.

“In general, though, both men and women tend to choose sedentary activities like reading, listening to music and watching television to manage their stress over healthier behaviors like seeing a mental health professional or exercising,” she said.

DeCleene said some easy stress relieving strategies are taking breaks, making a list of goals, asking for help and participating in a fun activity.

“Make sure you have some fun to break up the work,” she said. “Maintain a hobby, join a team, [or] spend time with friends.”