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Self-Care: Your Secret Weapon For Acing Mid-Terms & Stress

Stress is inevitable. This is especially true for the 50% of the Boulder population who are college students dealing with exams, assignments, deadlines, and – this week – midterms. While some stress can be beneficial and motivating, too much can have negative impacts on physical and mental health. With mid-terms upon us, it can be tempting to compromise physical and mental health practices in exchange for some extra time in the library. However, research finds that students who take the time for self-care perform better on examinations, overall course grades, and physical and mental health outcomes. So now is the time to double down on self-care (e.g., taking care of your well-being and happiness, especially during periods of stress). This column will help you understand why and how.

 

three people sitting in front of table laughing together poached egg with vegetables and tomatoes on blue plate silhouette of person standing near trees Woman in White Long Sleeve Shirt Sitting Beside Woman in Red Shirt 

Don’t Skimp on Sleep

Sleep is essential for your health and well-being. It helps your body and brain to rest, repair, and recharge. It also improves your memory retention and concentration, as well as your mood, and immune system. Aim for at least seven to nine hours of quality sleep every night. To improve your sleep hygiene, avoid caffeine, alcohol, and screens before bed, stick to a regular bedtime and wake-up time, and make your bedroom comfortable and dark.

A few extra notes:

  1. Caffeine has a half-life of about 5 hours, meaning that 5 hours after your last cup of coffee, you will still have about half of the caffeine in your system. If you are genetically slow to metabolize of caffeine, this could take up to 7 hours. Aim to have your last caffeinated beverage ~7 hours before bedtime.
  2. Try to synchronize your sleep with the sun, aim for a bedtime between 10-11p (I know, I know), and a waking time of between 6-7:30a. The benefits of this are numerous.
  3. Consider using an eye mask to help deepen your sleep. A post-pandemic buff draped over your eyes works just as well if you’re not ready to invest the $5-15 for an eye mask. The benefits will be worth any embarrassment; trust me on this one!

Eat Well

Food is fuel for your body and mind. It provides you with the energy and nutrients you need to function and perform well. Eating well means eating a balanced and varied diet that includes plenty of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean proteins, healthy fats, and water. Avoid skipping meals, binge eating, or relying on junk food, as these can worsen your stress and health. Instead, make healthy options the most easily accessible, plan your meals and snacks in advance, and enjoy them mindfully and moderately.

Extra Tips:

  1. During times of peak performance and stress, minimizing stimulating, highly processed foods with added sugars and salts can significantly boost concentration.
  2. Increase colorful fruits and veggies (especially purple and green foods like berries, leafy greens, and crucifers like broccoli and Brussel sprouts). These have a variety of different anti-inflammatory and cognitive/focus-boosting qualities that will help you study and focus better, retain information and perform on test day better, feel better throughout the process, and avoid getting sick during or after.
  3. Aim to increase lean protein. Soy products like edamame, tofu, and tempeh have a variety of cognitive benefits that can assist in studying and focusing, as well as reducing stress.
  4. Similarly, healthy fats like avocado, coconut oil, olives, and olive oils, can help your brain pull those extra study hours.

For more nutrition tips, check out our recent columns on anti-inflammatory diet and smoothies or visit my blog (https://www.brennabray.com/blog/).

Exercise

Exercise is one of the best ways to improve your brain function, learning, and memory retention while also relieving stress and improving overall health, wellness, and fitness. Exercise causes your brain to release a chemical called BDNF (brain-derived neurotrophic factor), which is like food for your brain cells that helps them grow and helps you learn and remember new things in turn. So exercise can help you study and learn more quickly, easily, and efficiently, and better retain the things you learn. If you have lectures or textbooks available on audio recordings, listening to these while working out can be a great way to maximize your time.

Exercise also helps reduce cortisol levels in the body and brain. Cortisol is a hormone released in response to stress. In small doses, cortisol can help you focus, retain information, and study more efficiently. However, in excess, cortisol can can cause “brain fog,” and “spacing out” and worsen or even prevent learning and memory retention and recall. Lastly, exercise releases endorphins, chemicals your body produces that enhance feelings of euphoria, and can help improve sleep (which is essential for cognitive performance, learning, and reducing stress), boost confidence, help manage and prevent chronic diseases, and

NOTE:

  • Remember that exercise itself can be a stressor, so the benefits depend on the dose. Midterms are not the time to attempt your first half-marathon run; keep the exercise moderate.
  • Aim for at least 30 minutes per day of moderately intense physical activity (150 minutes per week).
  • You can choose any activity that you enjoy and that suits your level, such as walking, jogging, cycling, swimming, dancing, or yoga.
  • Pairing exercise with studying (e.g., listening to a lecture or audiobook while jogging) or socialization (e.g., group jog) or both (group walk or jog with your study group?) can both maximize your time and the benefits of this tool in respect your academic study goals.

Relax

Relaxation is the opposite of stress. It helps you calm your body and mind, and restore your balance and harmony. Relaxation can also lower your blood pressure, heart rate, breathing rate, and muscle tension, and increase your blood flow and oxygen. There are many ways to relax, such as deep breathing, meditation, mindfulness, progressive muscle relaxation, aromatherapy, massage, or listening to soothing music. Find a relaxation technique that works for you, and practice it regularly, especially when you feel stressed or anxious. When preparing for exams and seeking to reduce ADD/ADHD symptoms, I refer my clients to Michael Sealey’s guided hypnosis meditations before bedtime (e.g., “Quieting the Over-Active Mind” is a great one).

NOTE:

  • Contemplation – a form of meditation that involves inner reflection – can have a variety of additional benefits in reducing stress and anxiety and helping deepen one’s understanding of academic material when the contemplation is focused on that material.
  • For additional resources on meditation, check out the Client Resource Page of my website (https://www.brennabray.com/meditations/; PW: Mahalo_Aloha).

 

Stay Social & Have Fun

While mid-terms are probably not the best time to go to your first house party or progressive (save those for after the exams if that’s your thing), there are a variety of benefits to socialization. First, positive social experiences – even just studying near others at a coffee shop or the library – can cause the body to produce a social hormone called oxytocin that can help reduce anxiety and stress, thereby helping you better concentrate and study in turn.

Socializing and having fun can also help reduce stress, improve mood, increase creativity, and strengthen relationships, and these outcomes can be achieved with just small daily doses. For example, reading your favorite health and wellness column, drawing, playing a game, completing a crossword puzzle, going for an enjoyable run, hike, or ski, or spending time with friends and family. Make time for fun in your schedule, and don’t feel guilty about it. Research shows that this form of self-care can help you study and perform better in the short term and the long run.

 

Seek Support & Communicate

You don’t have to deal with stress alone. You can seek support from others who can help you cope and offer you comfort, advice, or assistance. Seeking support is not a sign of weakness; it’s a sign of strength and courage. You can seek support from friends, family, classmates, teachers, counselors, mentors, health coaches, or other trusted people. You can also join support groups, online communities, or helplines that can provide emotional, social, or practical support. Don’t be afraid to ask for help when you need it.

Students may find additional benefits from keeping class commitments (e.g., physically showing up for class) and communicating with their instructors and class peers, especially during times of higher stress (e.g., midterms and finals). Communicating with your instructors and classmates can help you prioritize your time, energy, and attention and help those around you better understand and support you. Showing up for class consistently – even when times get tough – can not only help establish a rapport with your instructors and help you better understand how to navigate each class; it can also provide oxytocin-boosting and stress-reducing benefits of being around a group of peers and going through a challenging experience together. This can help foster a sense of community and of being a part of something. This type of enduring social support and engagement can increase mood, boost your immune system and cognitive function, and enhance your overall physical, mental, and emotional health and wellness on many measures.

 

Consistency is Key

Self-care is not a one-time thing; it’s a continuous and ongoing process. It’s not something that you do when you have time; it’s something that you make time for. It’s not something that you do when you feel stressed; it’s something that you do to prevent or reduce stress. Self-care is something that you do for yourself because you matter and you deserve it. By practicing self-care, you can improve your health and well-being, cope better with stressful times, and better enable yourself to show up in the world the way you want to, thus achieving maximal service and helpfulness to your friends, families, and community at large. For those looking to delve deeper into the practice of self-care, exploring a range of self-care books can provide additional insights and strategies. These resources can offer further guidance on how to integrate self-care into your daily routine, ensuring you’re well-equipped to face the challenges of academic life and beyond. So, start today, and make self-care a part of your daily routine. You’ll be glad you did.

 

Sources:

(1) Seven Self-care Tips for College Students – Mental Health First Aid. https://www.mentalhealthfirstaid.org/2022/08/seven-self-care-tips-for-college-students/.
(2) The Ultimate Guide to Self Care Activities for College Students. https://truandwell.com/health-and-wellness/self-care-activities-for-college-students/.
(3) How College Students Can Prioritize Self-Care | UMass Global. https://www.umassglobal.edu/news-and-events/blog/self-care-for-college-students.
(4) 17 Self-Care Activities For College Students. https://www.collegegirlsmarts.com/self-care-activities-college-students/.
(5) 20 Best Self Care Ideas for College Students to Reboot. https://collegelifehub.com/self-care-ideas-for-college-students/.
(6) 25 Valuable Health & Wellness Blogs to Follow in 2023. https://www.purdueglobal.edu/blog/student-life/valuable-health-wellness-blogs/.
(7) 30+ Best Health and Fitness Blog Examples (2023) – FirstSiteGuide. https://firstsiteguide.com/best-health-and-fitness-blogs/.
(8) 7 Health And Fitness Blog Examples For 2024 (+ Key Takeaways). https://bloggingwizard.com/health-fitness-blog-examples/.
(9) 7 of the top health and wellness blogs you should be following. https://www.oneyearnobeer.com/top-wellness-blogs/.
(10) How To Start a Health Blog In 6 Steps – Wix.com. https://www.wix.com/blog/how-to-start-a-health-blog.

Dr. Brenna Bray, a local health and wellness coach, stress researcher, associate professor, and avid ultra-marathon mountain runner, holds PhDs in Biomedical Science, Neuroscience, and Complementary and Integrative Health. Her journey through an eating disorder fuels her dedication to coaching, merging personal experiences with scientific expertise. Through her practice, Bray empowers clients to access and harness their innate healing abilities and achieve remarkable health and wellness transformations. Committed to community engagement and holistic well-being, Dr. Bray shapes a brighter, healthier future for all. Learn more about Dr. Bray at www.brennabray.com.

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