Students cope with stress near semester’s end

December has become virtually synonymous with stress in many students’ minds.

“Christmas break is coming, and I’m just thinking about getting done and having finals over with,” said U computer engineering turned undeclared major Jonathan Benson.

Many U students, like Benson, are faced with a high level of pressure due to a number of factors including world events, the current state of the economy, an increasingly competitive job market, an often difficult race to register for the next semester, and, of course, the looming promise of Finals Week.

“I think it’s just a reality of being on a college campus and in a college counseling center that around the times of midterms and finals, people are just more stressed,” said Lauren Weitzman, director of the U’s Counseling Center. “People react differently to 9/11 and terrorism, so it seems like world events can affect students’ stress levels.”

Dean of Students Stayner Landward agreed that outside forces in the world and current events tend to affect students psychologically.

“The market seems to weigh more heavily on student’ minds than it has in the past,” Landward said. “The cost of education has risen. Students used to be able to work five months in the summer and earn tuition, but the cost of higher education has outpaced inflation.”

In the past two years, tuition has grown about three to four times as fast as inflation, according to Paul Brinkman, associate vice president for budget and planning.

“Because of the economy, states have had difficulty contributing a large share to higher education, so the students’ share has gone up,” he said.

In addition, Landward said “a lot of students have to balance work, school and having a family and sometimes fall behind in school work.”

Some students say their source of stress comes directly from classes, especially at this juncture of the semester.

Tim Simmons, a math and engineering major, said his main source of stress stems from keeping up with his heavy load of 17 courses.

Weitzman said many of the students who consult her services cite stress as a contributing factor to their troubles.

“I think that stress is one of the major reasons that people come in to see us,” she said. “It’s pretty common, and I think in a way it’s just a part of the college experience. Stress is out there and it clearly affects students. We tend to see students when their academic status is being affected, which is often because of the stressors they’re experiencing.”

Effects of stress can also plague students’ physical well-being.

“Stress can increase vulnerability to illnesses like colds and can make existing physical problems worse,” said Kelly Glazer, a specialist in health psychology at the U. However, Glazer warned stress is not the same for everybody on a psychological level. It has more to do with how specific students handle it.

Weitzman agreed.

“Stress manifests itself differently for different people,” she said. “Everyone has their own unique ways of dealing with that. Some people may get physical symptoms like stomachaches or headaches and other people are just going to be more agitated or uptight or anxious. Other people get more depressed or shut down.”

Coping

Glazer said it is important to keep a focus on the larger picture rather than to obsess with worries.

“If you take it head-on and maintain a sense of humor about it, then it will be less distressing,” Glazer said. “If you procrastinate, go into denial, or abuse drugs and alcohol, then stress will have a bigger psychological impact.”

Glazer recommended students engage in certain activities, such as resting, exercising and being with family and friends to cope with pressures.

Weitzman agreed with her recommendations and emphasized exercise.

“I think exercise is one of the best stress-reducing things people can do,” she said. “Physically, it works through those chemicals that get released when we are stressed.”

Some U students are already practicing Glazer’s and Weitzman’s recommended strategies.

“I usually exercise, go bike riding or play basketball,” said chemistry student Jason Demke.

Simmons said he simply diverts his attention from the source of his concerns and rests.

“I usually just watch TV on the weekends and go on normally,” he said.

However, some students, like Benson who came to Utah for school, are unable to take up Glazer’s advice of being with family and friends.

“I try not to think about finals at all. I’m thinking more about Christmas break coming up and going back home to see my family and friends,” Benson said.

The way students cope with various pressures directly contributes to their test performance, according to Glazer.

If stress is not dealt with appropriately, it can lead to serious problems, like depression, over time.

“I think what happens with stress is that when you exceed your threshold of being able to cope with stress, that’s when things start to break down and fall apart,” Weitzman said.

However, if experienced in moderation, Glazer said pressure can actually improve test performances.

“When under some pressure, students tend to perform better on tests, but if the pressure is too great, then it causes problems like anxiety,” Glazer said. “People can have difficulty remembering information and organizing their thoughts. They also tend to be tired because they aren’t sleeping as well.”

Weitzman added that there is a form of stress called “eustress” that results from positive experiences, such as getting a new job, getting married, having a baby or graduating.

“We tend to think that stress can only be caused by bad things, but good things can cause stress too,” she said.

Glazer offered other advice to students who wish to succeed in exams and cope in a positive manner.

“Number one, you need to take care of your body,” she said.

This involves aspects including getting enough sleep and eating well.

“It’s ironic that this happens to be hardest to do during final exams,” Glazer said.

Weitzman warned against drinking and drug abuse.

“Maintain your energy preserves; it’s not a good time to go out and drink,” she said.

Weitzman also recommended that students manage their schedule in a sensible way by prioritizing and being organized.

“I know for myself I tend to get more stressed out when I feel like I can’t get a handle on everything because it feels so big,” she said. “So it’s breaking things down to doable pieces so you can accomplish one small step toward your goals.”

Glazer agreed and encouraged students to keep a light heart about their tests.

“Don’t forget to keep your exams in perspective,” she said. “It’s not catastrophic, have a sense of humor and balance about Finals Week and keep in mind that it’s over in a couple weeks.”

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