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8 Ways to Boost Your Mental Health as a Student

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Elizabeth Mass, LICSW, LCSWAs a student, balancing your coursework, living away from home for the first time, making new friends and extracurricular activities – all at once – can be very overwhelming. Especially during exam time, your stress levels can increase with multiple deadlines and from exam anxiety in high pressure test-taking environments.

Prolonged periods of stress are unhealthy and can lead to burnout and health problems like anxiety, insomnia and depression. Recent research from Future Forum found that 48% of people under 30 are reporting burnout, compared to 40% of those over 30. The report states that: “Age and gender are highly correlated with the likelihood of experiencing burnout, with women and younger people significantly more likely to say they are burned out. The younger you are, the more likely you are to say you are burned out.” Stress can also negatively impact your academic performance. That’s why it’s extremely important to make sure you’re balancing your mental health with your studies, to avoid burnout and for your overall wellbeing.

We spoke with Elizabeth Mass, LICSW, LCSW, a psychotherapist in private practice who specializes in working with young adults experiencing anxiety, stress, depression, and difficulties navigating the challenges of college, graduate school, and work. Elizabeth worked in university counseling centers for seven years prior to shifting into private practice and she shares her tried and tested recommendations to improve your mental wellbeing during your studies and exams.

Together, we’ve rounded up 8 tips to overcome your test anxiety and boost your mental health as a student.    

1. Break the study cycle

To avoid fatigue, try relaxation techniques, get up to take a walk or have a snack to temporarily refocus your attention away from your coursework.

“I recommend taking at least a 5-10 minute break every 60-90 minutes. Taking breaks may only feel feasible if you give yourself enough time to prepare for an exam. Try to be as proactive as possible with scheduling ample study time so that you avoid cramming – which can increase your anxiety and stress, and is not as effective of a study method.”

2. Kindness counts

Anxious feelings about your exam performance are natural, but it’s important to practice kindness with your classmates and most importantly, yourself.

“Be compassionate with yourself. Studying for an exam can be a difficult process and you are bound to have better days than others. If you don’t get through as much material as you want in a day or don’t do as well as you want on a practice exam, be gentle with yourself,” advises Elizabeth. 

“Self-compassion expert and psychologist, Kristen Neff discusses the fact that most people are harsh with themselves because they find it motivating – however, research shows that being compassionate with yourself is actually more motivating. Think about someone who you unconditionally love and how you might speak to them if they didn’t do as well as they wanted, and try to reflect similar language back to yourself,” she said.

3. Trust your gut

Test anxiety can manifest in the form of physical symptoms like an upset stomach or a headache, but your body can also signal when studying can be more effective for you.

“Listen to your body. People are different in terms of when they have the most energy and focus during the day. Leverage your body’s natural rhythms by trying to study during the times that it feels easiest to do so,” Elizabeth recommends.

4. Self care is the best care

During times of stress, it’s all too common to stop taking care of your physical health, mental health and hygiene and instead devoting all your time to studying. However, it can help your mood and your brain to indulge in self-care before your next exam to ease your test anxiety.

“Take good care of yourself. Studying for exams can be anxiety inducing, especially if you perceive that there is a lot riding on your score. You can limit your baseline anxiety by sleeping enough, eating well, exercising, socializing and limiting your caffeine intake,” said Elizabeth.

5. Turn your imposter syndrome into your superpower

Your thoughts have power, and you can reframe them to your advantage to better manage test anxiety, feel confident and boost your academic performance.

“It is natural to experience unhelpful or self-defeating thoughts about how you will perform if there are high stakes. Cognitive therapists posit that your thoughts impact your emotions and behaviors. We have so many thoughts in a day that it can be hard to catch them all, but they can still have a deleterious effect,” Elizabeth explained.

“Turn up the volume on your thoughts and when you notice one that is unhelpful such as: ‘I am not going to do well on this exam’ remind yourself that thoughts are not facts and that you cannot read the future. Replace the negative thought with a more evidence-based thought such as: ‘I am not sure how I will do on the exam, but I am studying to increase the likelihood that I will do well.’”

6. Breathe freely

When you start feeling physical symptoms of test anxiety like sweaty palms, panic or spiralling thoughts, pause and take it back to the basics – start by controlling your breath.

“Calm your autonomic nervous system with diaphragmatic breathing. Most people studying for an exam are bound to experience anxiety or stress and may experience physiological symptoms such as a racing heart or shortness of breath. When this happens, you can engage in diaphragmatic breathing to help activate the parasympathetic nervous system and calm your body,” Elizabeth said. 

“There are two things that make diaphragmatic breathing different from the everyday breathing we engage in. The first is where in our body we breathe – as the name suggests, we want to breathe into our diaphragm. You can tell if you are doing this correctly by placing one hand on your lower belly and one on your chest. When you breathe in, you should feel the hand on your belly rise, and when you breathe out you should feel the same hand fall back toward your body. All the while, the hand on your chest should remain relatively still. It can be helpful to imagine a baby or a puppy sleeping and try to channel that. If you have seen a baby or puppy sleep before, you know that their little bellies rise and fall, but their shoulders stay still. That is exactly what we are going for.

“The second thing that makes diaphragmatic breathing different from everyday breathing is that you should take a pause at the top and bottom of your breath. So you should breathe in, pause at the top of the breath, then breathe out, and pause before taking your next breath in.”

7. Treat yourself

Incentivizing yourself, despite the outcome of your exam, is another way to help ease your test anxiety.

“Positive reinforcement, or rewarding yourself for completing a task, is a tried and tested way to increase a behavior. Think of an activity or treat that you love and plan to enjoy it after you study,” Elizabeth said.

8. Believe in yourself

Most importantly, have faith that you have control to prepare yourself well for your studies and keep in mind how much you have already achieved.

“Remind yourself you have the resources to meet your demand. When I used to think about stress, I thought it only referred to a negative experience of feeling overwhelmed. This describes ‘distress’. But there is another important kind of stress called ‘eustress’ which is beneficial stress that produces optimal performance. Eustress occurs when we perceive that we have the resources to meet our demand and distress occurs when we don’t. 

“If you find yourself experiencing unhelpful impacts of stress, try to remind yourself that you have the resources to meet your demand which can shift you from an experience of distress – characterized by anxiety and disorganization – to one of eustress, which is characterized by an experience of motivation and peak performance. It may be helpful to make a list of the various ways that you take care of yourself across different facets of wellness, such as socially, mentally, physically, emotionally and spiritually, to refer to in the moments you find yourself feeling distressed so you can remind yourself of all the resources you have. If during this exercise you find opportunities for growth in one of these types of wellness, take the opportunity to find the relevant resources to fill the gap,” advised Elizabeth.

For more tips, tricks and techniques to overcome test anxiety and more, read our articles around Exams and Exam Prep.