December is a stressful time for everyone, but for students this time of year contains the monsters of all anxiety inducers; finals. Student life can be very stressful and these past few years contain extra post-COVID anxiety. All students could use some new tools for this difficult time in their lives. Here are five ways to help students deal with anxiety around finals.

1. Breathing Exercises

Controlled breathing is the most powerful tool in the stress reduction toolbox. Stress and anxiety activate the sympathetic nervous system and cause a release of the stress hormones adrenaline and cortisol. This leads to physiologic changes known as the stress response. Breathing exercises activate the parasympathetic nervous system, which reduces the stress response. There are a number of studies that show the power of breathing exercises for stress relief. 

1a. 4-7-8 Breathing

This technique was created by Andrew Weil M.D, University of Arizona.  It  can help calm your nervous system quickly. You can do this exercise either sitting or lying down.

According to Dr. Weil you should:

  1. Count to four as you take a deep, slow breath from your belly.
  2. Hold your breath for seven counts.
  3. Breathe out for eight counts. Try to get all the air out of your lungs by the time you count to eight.
  4. Repeat three to seven times or until you feel calm.
  5. Take a few minutes to sit and feel the sensations in your body and mind before returning to your day.

1b. The Humming Breath

The humming breath, also known as bhramari pranayama, uses breath and vibration to activate the parasympathetic nervous system.

  1. Take a comfortable seat or stand with a straight spine.
  2. Breathe in through the nose for at least five seconds.
  3. With your mouth closed, hum as if you’re saying “hmmm” until you’re out of breath.
  4. Repeat five to seven times.

2. Call home/call a friend

Many students today keep in touch via text messages. But when you are anxious, don’t underestimate the power of a calming voice. At times it can feel like a hug. It is also very important to think before making these calls, though. If you have parents who are anxious themselves, a panicky phone call from you will not do either of you any good. Think of the calmest person you know who won’t add to your panic and give them a call. 

3. Write things down

Lists/journaling – Writing things down is a given while studying, but the power of making a list shouldn’t be underestimated. When you have too many things on your mind, making a list of them can give you back a sense of control. It also gives your brain a break from thinking about everything you need to get done. The same is true for journaling. Writing down all your negative emotions can get them out of your head for a while. Making a list of tasks for the next day, then writing a short journal entry before bed is an excellent habit to form as a student because it can clear your head for a good night’s sleep. 

4. Exercise and fresh air breaks

Exercise is a well known stress reliever. There have been many studies confirming the value of exercise to relieve anxiety and stress. But if you do not have a regular exercise routine, just thinking about exercise can be stressful. So the trick is not to use the word exercise. Most US campuses are large and have a number of interesting or beautiful locations to visit. Using planned fresh air breaks to visit a campus garden or library can clear your head. Make sure you plan the amount of time you will be gone so your fresh air break doesn’t turn into brunch with a friend or some other distraction.

5. Background sounds

Studies have shown that university students often have a hard time with noisy distractions in the environment where they are trying to study. A useful tool available online is background music that helps mask distracting sounds. Lofi girl is the most famous of these, but there is a variety of calming background sounds that can keep you on task including library sounds and nature sounds. Brown noise, named for Robert Brown, the discoverer of Brownian motion, is also used by many people to reduce distractions. It is white noise that has been stripped of all high frequencies. It is important to note that background sounds and music are highly individualistic and what works for one person could actually increase stress for someone else.  

Remember that anxiety can be debilitating but it can also be motivating. Stay calm but stay on top of your work as you study for finals. And be glad you aren’t one of these students in Texas who went through all the stress of studying for and taking their SATs only for them to blow off the UPS truck. 

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