In the movies, college is all about ice luges, frat parties, and snoozing in class to recover from it all. You know what? Movies lie.
Sure, there are parties, but most of the time college is more stress than fiesta followed by siesta. And the pressure of homework -- tons of it -- and exams -- lots of them -- can take a toll on your mental and physical health. WebMD asked Alex Lickerman, MD, interim assistant vice president for Student Health and Counseling at the University of Chicago, for some smart tips to keep the stress at bay (or at least at a low ebb) throughout the semester.
A marathon study session may seem like a great idea, but you can wear out your willpower and concentration. "Keeping on task is a very energy-expensive process," Lickerman says. "When you use all your energy to keep yourself studying, you can't use that same energy to control your worry or your stress about it." This can lead to freak-outs of major proportions. So when you start feeling fatigued, take a break and do something that replenishes you, such as noshing on a light snack or taking a 10- or 20-minute walk outside, before hitting the books again.
Give Your Mind a Break
Anxiety pops up when your mind is not on the present moment: You're trying to study, but you're worrying about your next exam. Or you're taking the exam while stressing about something your boyfriend said. According to Lickerman, daily meditation for as little as 20 minutes can help you develop your mindfulness muscle. "Meditation seems to have an effect beyond the period when you're meditating," he says. Find a quiet place to sit, close your eyes, and focus on your breath, gently bringing your mind back whenever it wanders.
Make a List
Does it seem like everything's stressing you out? "Sometimes it turns out the entire source of your stress is just one thing, and yet because you're so stressed you feel like you can't do the other things," Lickerman says. The solution? "It's helpful to pinpoint what exactly is making you feel overwhelmed so your worry doesn't bleed into other areas." He suggests compiling a list of everything on your plate. Then rank the tasks by which ones are really bugging you so you can take care of them right away. Crossing things off a list has its own stress-reducing reward.
Get Your ZZZs
You already know that lack of sleep makes it harder to kick stress to the curb. The question is: How can you catch your eight hours when you're in a dorm full of partyers, and your roommate considers 3 a.m. prime study time? Keep it simple: Lickerman suggests buying a pair of earplugs and an eyeshade (really!) and talking to your resident assistant if rowdy neighbors consistently keep you up. Also, daytime naps as short as 15 to 20 minutes can help you feel refreshed after a poor night's sleep.
Don't Cram (Food, That Is)
Yes, a small snack can help replenish your energy during a study session, but it's easy to distract yourself from stress with copious amounts of food, which causes pounds to pile on, which causes more stress -- you get the picture. Instead of chowing down an entire bag of tortilla chips whenever you feel anxious about a project or exam, Lickerman says, distract yourself with a nonfood activity you enjoy. Read your favorite blog or a short magazine article, or click on the TV for some news headlines, or get outside for a quick walk around your dorm building. Your urge for mindless eating should go away so you can return to studying -- without a junk-food break.