Managing Stress In College: What Actually Works (PART 1)

This is a post for all students because, regardless of your field of study, you’ve probably experienced a lot of stress, especially during finals. Being focused on studies, deadlines, and grades while also trying to have a personal life can be difficult and stressful, so having the tools to deal with it constructively is essential.

  • Don’t put all your focus into studying
  • Don’t forget to spend quality time with yourself
  • Search for good in everything

In my four years of medical school, I’ve learned a lot, not only about medicine but also about myself, what kind of life I want, and how to battle stress when life gets tough. I’ve also realized that while medicine is something that I love and adore, it doesn’t define me or who I am as a person. Most people are unaware of how easily they can lose themselves when they devote all of their time, energy, and focus to studying and practicing something.

Even though we are frequently told that college and a degree should be our top priorities, this is not entirely correct. You should always be your first priority. You must take the time to consider what kind of life you want; you must consider what you want your future to look like and then work toward it. And many times, this means studying and working hard for your dream job, which you will be good at and will make you happy. Sometimes college might not be the right way to go, and as long as you have a clear goal and are working towards it, that’s okay too.

I’ve been under a lot of stress throughout my education because I knew I needed good grades to get into med school. And, to be completely honest, the way I dealt with stress wasn’t always the healthiest or most efficient, so I felt a lot more lost, exhausted, and overwhelmed than I should have. Before we go any further, you need to realize that what I’m about to share with you won’t diminish your stress, so don’t expect some miracle; it will help you gain some perspective and give you some tools that will help you handle stress better. 

Just for the record: when I was an eager first-year medical student, I was all about science and nothing about perceiving the human body as a whole. I was convinced everything written below was total bullshit. It turns out I was mistaken. Whether you care to admit it, there is more than just pure chemistry going on in a human body, and your mood, perspective, and inner peace are greatly influenced by how you treat your body and the way you think. A healthy mindset is one of the crucial components of a healthy body, and the sooner you realize that, the better.

Here are 3 strategies that I use when I feel triggered or stressed (another 3 are coming in part 2):

1. Breathing Exercises

When I first heard about breathing exercises, my first thought was, What kind of crap is this? I was so sure this wouldn’t work that it took me a long time to even give it a try, so trust me when I tell you, it works. Make sure to inhale deeply and then exhale slowly. Exhaling should take at least twice as long as inhaling.

Count your breaths and really focus on the numbers. Focus on the breathing. Your heart rate actually decreases during the long exhale (this is known as respiratory sinus arrythmia, and it occurs when your heart beats slower during exhale than during inhale), which activates the vagus nerve (parasympathetic nervous system), which in turn helps you find calmness and clears your mind.

2. Movement—Dance It Out

I was listening to this podcast lately by Rob Dial. It’s called Mindset Mentor, and I really recommend you give it a try, especially if you’re willing to do the work to make a change. Also, this is not a paid ad or anything; I just discovered his podcast recently, and it helped me a lot with my struggles because this guy really knows what he’s talking about. In one of his episodes, he said, “Motion creates emotion”, and when you think about it, this is something you’ve already known.

Don’t you always feel better after a walk, hike, or some other form of exercise? I know I do, but I also don’t always have the time to go hiking or running, so dancing it out is a great alternative. It also works if the weather is bad and you don’t want to get wet.

Put on a song that gets you excited and dance like your life depends on it, and your mood will change in minutes. My go-to songs are currently Save Me San Francisco by Train and Everybody Talks by Neon Trees. So whenever I feel like I need a break or a mood uplift, I play these two songs and jump around to them until I can feel my mood improving.

What you should be aware of is that some days it may take you longer to achieve the mood you wish for, or maybe it won’t lift as much as you wanted, and this is perfectly normal because some days are just harder than others. Regardless, it will make you feel better, and that’s a win.

3. Take A Break

Sometimes you reach a point where you feel you can’t go on, and you’re on the verge of burnout. You must prioritize your health over all else and allow yourself time to recover. And by that  I don’t mean you stay in bed all day doing nothing, but rather to spend time doing things that make you happy and calm.

Take time to think about what it was in your life that brought you to that point and what you can change so that it doesn’t come to that again. Do you need to rearrange your priorities, gain a new perspective on life, and work on your mindset? Are you doing this to yourself?

Even if it’s finals week, you can afford to take an hour off from studying to clear your mind and reflect on why finals week is stressing you out. Yes, it’s the pressure of passing the finals, but should you be such a nerve wreck? Could you begin studying earlier next year and better organize your time so that you don’t have to do everything at the last minute?

Wouldn’t it be nice to feel confident in your knowledge and in yourself because you took enough time to understand the topics and no question can catch you off guard? Think about that. You can do so much to reduce the stress and pressure you’re under; it’s just that sometimes it seems like more work compared to panicking and complaining how difficult and unfair life is. You can do something to change this and it starts with shifting your perspective and gaining a winner’s mindset.