I got a student request this week for advice about how to manage stress and anxiety around classes. I feel like it is important to say, up front, that I am not a therapist or psychologist. I am most definitely not an expert at managing stress and anxiety. However, most universities offer counseling services for students and I absolutely encourage you to take advantage of that if you find yourself feeling overwhelmed with stress and anxiety, whether that is school related, or over other things. That being said, I'm happy to give you some general advice for managing anxiety or stress around school. Understand that these are tools for your toolkit, but they are not a substitute for actual help when you feel like you are drowning.
Tools for managing anxiety and stress:
- Assess the source: Anxiety and stress can present as overwhelming feelings, often with vague or ambiguous panicky signals. When this happens, it can be helpful to step back and try to identify the root of the anxious feelings. Looking at an overflowing inbox might set off an anxiety spiral, when the emails themselves are not the problem; in that example, the emails are stressful because they represent undone tasks and demands on your time. Anxiety over a midterm might have to do with feeling unprepared or short on time to study. Identifying the actual source of anxiety can give you a starting place for managing that anxiety.
- Once you have identified the underlying source of your anxiety or stress, see if you can make a game-plan to manage or remove some of the problem. You cannot make a mid-term just go away; but you can find ways to allocate sufficient time for studying. If you are overwhelmed by the number of assignments on your task-list, see if you can break those tasks down into SMART goals , then prioritize tasks based on both urgency and importance. Getting organized and making check-lists can be very effective ways to manage task-based anxiety. The goals or tasks you create yourself should be very clear and specific; don't write "study." Instead, break down your studying into a clear plan; something like: first go over lecture notes for class for these class dates; second, review notes on textbook these chapters, etc.etc. In other words, create a specific plan for yourself, include time estimates, account for your work schedule, and build in breaks for food, exercise, and self-care. Don't set yourself up for failure by planning to study from 3pm-10pm without time for dinner. This leads to point #3.
- Stress and anxiety are less manageable when you aren't taking care of yourself. When you are hungry, tired, stir-crazy, or isolated, that's when stress and anxiety thrive. Make sure you are taking care of your basic needs. Self-care isn't all bubble baths and manicures. Self-care means literally taking care of yourself: eat a well balanced meal, go on a walk, call a friend who makes you feel good, create a plan for yourself so that you are able to meet your responsibilities and enjoy leisure activities.
- The other side of self care is appropriate boundary setting. And I don't just mean setting boundaries with other people. It is also important to set boundaries for yourself. Sometimes we cause ourselves stress because we are not doing the things we know are necessary to our own well-being. Consider what time you need to go to bed in order to feel rested, then make yourself do that. Limit the time you spend on social media, and force yourself to respect that limit. Set aside time for school work, then actually do the work you need to do. Children rely on the adults in their lives to create and enforce boundaries, but one of the most challenging aspects of being an adult is the fact that you have to fulfill this role for yourself, even when you don't want to. Failing to set and respect appropriate boundaries for yourself can result in major stress.
- Reward yourself when you make it through a difficult day or event. When you finish an exam, no matter how you think you did on it, give yourself a small reward. Create a positive association with completing tasks that are hard or stressful or challenging for you. The kind of reward you set can be related to the difficulty of a task. A very, very difficult task (getting through all finals) might merit buying yourself a cake! A small task might merit a smaller reward like spending 15 minutes on tiktok or eating a handful of m&ms, or whatever small thing might bring you joy.
- If you are still feeling generalized anxiety and stress, you can also consider some additional tools that are available for free or very cheap. Try regular meditation before bed. Exercise frequently, because physical movement can relieve stress. Notice anxiety triggers and consider ways to help break that association. Take deep breaths and try to slow your heart and mind, particularly before exams or other stressful experiences. Journaling and gratitude practices might feel cheesy, but have been shown to decrease stress and increase positive feelings.