Whether you’re a bright-eyed freshman or a seasoned senior, the reality is that finals week is hard. After four busy months of nonstop assignments, tests, projects, group meetings, and class sessions, there’s no rest for the weary.
In fact, finals week is often the busiest and most stressful part of the entire semester. Yet in the midst of competing responsibilities and overworked brains, it can be difficult to practice self-care.
That being said, taking just a few minutes every couple of hours to recenter and ground yourself, eat a healthy snack, or take a walk around the block can actually ease your stress and make the process easier.
Keep reading to learn about signs of stress to look for in yourself and your friends, as well as how to handle stress, practice self-care, and where to find help and support along the way.
5 Signs of Stress in College Students
Changes in Appetite
If you suddenly find yourself without an appetite or reaching for snacks, it could be stress. Finals notoriously take it out of students and can leave them reaching for things that bring them comfort to combat stressful feelings.
Have you started waking up multiple times in the night when you’re usually a good sleeper? Have you been trying to go to bed early but still wake up feeling tired? It could be that your brain struggles to turn off with so much information flowing through it and the concerns over getting a good grade. Stress can affect your sleep in a variety of ways from keeping you up, waking you in the night, and not getting into a deep enough sleep cycle.
If stomach pains suddenly turn up or you notice changes in your daily gastrointestinal habits, the stress or nervousness could be getting to your gut. You may go through periods of feeling cramped, bloated, inflamed, or other issues that point to digestive problems.
Aches and Pains
If you suddenly start having a lot of headaches, notice your jaw is frequently clenched, or just feel tight all over, there’s a good chance stress has something to do with it. Stress causes us to tense our muscles for longer periods of time. When we do this, our bodies start sending signals that we need to loosen up and get a good stretch in.
Do you suddenly find yourself crying more than usual or having a short fuse with friends and family? Stress can make us feel overwhelmed and afraid, which can lead to emotional outbursts.
10 Tips for Handling Stress and Relaxing During Finals
Study with Friends
The sheer act of studying for finals with friends or sitting in the library together while you write a paper can build a sense of togetherness and make the whole experience feel less overwhelming. If you’re in the same class, you can also review concepts and terms together or quiz each other to make sure you’re ready for exam day. Make time to laugh during these study sessions, as plenty of data shows that laughter can help reduce stress.
Create a Plan of Attack
Sometimes we feel stressed and overwhelmed simply because we feel like we have too much to do. One way to combat this is to write down everything that must be done, the deadline for each, and what it takes to tick each one off the list. By creating a plan of attack, you can build in time for each final and make sure you feel like you have enough hours in the day to study and prepare. This can also help you build in time for some more enjoyable activities, such as dinner with friends, a good workout, or a DIY craft project to help lighten your mood.
Build in Downtime
Downtime plays a critical role in self-care and can often lighten your stress levels. Even taking half an hour to watch a rerun of your favorite show, call a family member to catch up, or go for a walk around the neighborhood can help you feel refreshed and ready to tackle another study session. Think about activities that calm your nerves and bring you peace, and be sure to add these into your plan of attack.
Whether you enjoy walking, running, lifting weights, or flowing through a yoga sequence, exercise is a proven stress-reducer. Even just 20-30 minutes a day can help you destress, refocus, and feel better about the task at hand. If you don’t enjoy solo exercise, consider taking a class, asking a friend to play some tennis or wallyball, or finding a local climbing gym.
Eating a healthy meal is often the last thing on a student’s mind in the midst of finals chaos, but doing so can help relieve stress, promote better digestive health, and allow you to sleep better. And haven’t you ever felt better when you had a good healthy meal compared to greasy, fried food? It may not be possible for all three of your meals to err on the healthy side when you’re busy, but try for at least one a day. You can also try incorporating healthy snacks. Avoiding overconsumption of alcohol will also help with stress levels and improve your sleep cycles.
Step Away from Social Media
With endless scrolling entertainment available 24/7 on apps like TikTok, Instagram, YouTube, and Snapchat, focusing for long periods of time can seem difficult. By shutting off your social media accounts during finals, you may find that the less distractions help your list of things to study for and turn in goes by more quickly. Plus, you’re probably already taking in too much screen time studying, so no need to burn out your eyes on social media. If you can’t totally step away, consider setting a 10-15 timer every couple hours and allow yourself to scroll only during that time.
Do Some Breathing Exercises
Many different types of breathing exercises exist to help individuals center themselves and create calm in stressful situations. Many of these can be done in just a minute or two but provide lasting benefits. Completing a few breathing exercises can also help reduce tension, meaning you may experience fewer headaches and muscle issues. Plenty of apps offer free and paid breathing exercises guided by professionals.
It’s safe to say that losing a textbook, misplacing an email, or otherwise not being able to find an important key to finals week is pretty stressful. Organization can go a long way in making the seemingly endless tests and assignments feel more manageable and can also help you save valuable time. When possible, create a designated space where all your school materials live when they aren’t in your backpack. That way, you won’t spend precious time looking for things you need to study. You can also utilize a journal or calendar so you can keep all your test dates and project deadlines organized.
When it’s midnight and you still have what feels like hours left to study before you can go to sleep, feeling grateful is probably the last thing you want to do. That said, studies show that practicing gratitude can help relieve stress and help you reframe trying situations. There are many different ways to practice gratitude, ranging from listing five things that make you grateful to sending a quick text or email to let someone know that you appreciate their presence in your life.
Ask for Help
If you’ve tried a variety of self-help and destressing techniques but none of them seem to be making a difference, ask for help. Reach out to your professor or academic advisor as soon as possible and let them know you’re feeling overwhelmed by finals and all that needs to be accomplished. They can either help you create a plan of attack that feels doable or work with teachers to see about moving your finals week schedule around to make it more manageable or request reasonable accommodations.
Resources for Finals Week
Here are some other resources, businesses, and apps that you can utilize to help you destress and take care of yourself this semester when those finals hit.
AIS provides a College Student’s guide to stress that offers actionable ideas and tips for avoiding too much stress.
Recognizing the pressure finals week puts on students, some universities have started providing a series of events and resources to lessen the burden. Check out the University of Houston to see what to look for.
In recent years, some schools have started providing therapy dogs during finals to cheer up students and reduce stress. If yours doesn’t already, ask if this is something they can implement.
This article shared by Pennsylvania State University looks at some of the issues students can face around stress and finals.
This article by MHA examines why finals are so stressful and what students, faculty, and administrators alike can do to address the problem.
Available for both Android and iPhone users, the headspace app is an all-around great tool for meditations that can help you fall asleep, lower stress, and focus on gratitude. There are both free and paid options.
The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill provides a range of tools for staying organized, including a final exam planner, prep workshop, and tips for effective stress management.
This free planner app works across platforms to help students stay on top of everything they need to get done during finals week and beyond. You can use it across multiple apps and operating systems for streamlined planning.