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Experts address finals stress

Kathryn Marshall | Thursday, December 12, 2013

During this time of late night studying and coffee breaks, both Notre Dame and Saint Mary’s offer resources to help students manage the stress of finals week in a healthy manner.  

“College is a high stress environment and we perform best when we have learned to manage our stress,” Dr. Megan Brown, a counseling psychologist at the University Counseling Center (UCC), said. “However, many of us need to learn the skills of stress management. These resources help students learn and hone these skills.”

In Saint Liam Hall at Notre Dame, students have access to the Inner Resources Room, which contains tools used to guide relaxation and enhance performance, according to the UCC’s website. Students can use a massage chair, a light box and computer biofeedback programs such as emWave and Healing Rhythms in the room, Brown said.

Saint Mary’s also provides a form of light therapy, the Happy Light, offered by Women’s Health, Kris Pendley, a Saint Mary’s counselor, said. These devices combat seasonal affective disorders by giving students exposure to a full spectrum of light similar to the light of the sun for 20 to 30 minutes, Pendley said.

“I think that for people used to sunny climates like California and the Southwest and southern states like Florida and Georgia where they have more sunlight are often more affected by the climate here,” Pendley said. “So this is an easy way to help with depression without needing a pill.”

At Saint Mary’s, counselors in Women’s Health work with students to manage stress and anxiety, Pendley said. They use a wellness approach that includes looking at sleep habits, practicing visualization and discussing nutrition as well as deep breathing, she said.

“[Deep breathing] levels out the oxygen and carbon dioxide levels in your blood, and it gives your brain a good shot of oxygen which helps you think,” Pendley said.

Taking care of the body through sleep, a healthy diet and exercise, as well as positive self talk that involves realistic encouragement and self compassion are techniques students can use to relieve stress, Brown said.

“I think the most effective stress management is practicing a balanced lifestyle every day,” Brown said. “Then when things get particularly stressful, there is nothing new to learn, only slight adaptations to be made.”

Pendley said smiling is another simple technique to manage stress. When you smile, the brain releases a chemical that makes you happy, and even if the person doesn’t return the smile, their brain releases a positive chemical as well, she said.

“The thing with anxiety and stress is that you have a lot of control over your brain chemistry,” Pendley said. “When you think negative thoughts your brain produces the chemistry that causes anxiety and sadness.”

Pendley said excessive stress is not healthy and often results in not only unhappiness but increased levels of procrastination.

“All-nighters” are often a result, and are often counter-productive because without sleep the brain is unable to transfer information from the short-term to the long-term memory, she said.

“Catastrophizing and not seeing a way out of the stress can shut us down,” Brown said. “If the stress is so bad that you can’t see the light at the end of the tunnel, ask for help from someone who can do something – a professor, a parent, a rector or a counselor.”

Taking part in healthy activities, such as going for a walk or calling a friend, that elicit positive emotions are good ways to handle the stress college naturally invokes, Brown said.

“I challenge students not to wait until finals to learn stress management,” she said. “These are the skills of success and happiness that will last a lifetime.”

Contact Kathryn Marshall at kmarsh02@saintmarys.edu