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End of the Semester Stress and Self-Care

It’s that time of the semester…final exams, papers, projects, grades, and graduation. In addition to stress associated with school, many students are coping with emotions associated with holidays or gloomy/winter seasonal affect. International students, or those that live far away from family, may be especially at-risk for exhausted financial or emotional resources as they try to get home or figure out plans for winter break. And, many of you simply put so much pressure on yourselves as academic or organizational leaders that you forget or don’t take the time to take care of yourself in the way that your body and mind needs.

Self-care can enhance your ability to cope with stress, anxiety, and depression. It can help you to have better cognitive focus and give you more energy. Engaging in self-care can also improve your mood, and some forms of self-care can aid in the development of your social support system. So, what kind of self-caretaker are you?

Self-caretaker quiz:

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A few ideas for taking good care of you as you make your way to the end of this semester:

Be mindful about your food consumption and dietary intake. In general, you should eat smaller meals frequently and make sure they are fresh, colorful, and include a variety. You need carbs to enhance your energy, and they can make you feel good at the time; but, refined or processed carbs, including sugary cereal, pop, candy, or cookies and trans fats, such as those in a lot of fast food restaurants can lead to decreases in energy or even depression (e.g, see Popa & Ladea, 2012). Higher energy foods and those that can help with anxiety and depression include

  • a combination of protein and complex carbs (i.e., peanut butter on whole wheat bread or cracker)
  • omega 3 fatty acids (i.e., found in flaxseeds, walnuts, kale, and spinach)
  • vitamin B12 (i.e., shellfish, crab, silken tofu)
  •  magnesium (pumpkin seeds, sunflower seeds, pecans)
  • glutamine (i.e., yogurt, milk, chicken, beef)
  • zinc (i.e., spinach, pumpkin seeds)
  • fruits (i.e., bananas, kiwi, tomatoes)
  • a mixture of tryptophan-rich foods (i.e., turkey, fish, chicken, ,cottage cheese)
  • vitamin B6-rich foods (i.e., corn, eggs, green leafs, nuts, peas, sunflower seeds)

Go to dinner with a friend instead of eating alone. It’s important to not isolate yourself, and social support is critical to your health, well-being, happiness, and life satisfaction. Research has shown that social support can buffer stress, and emotional support may be especially important for college students during this time (Cohen & McKay, 1984), whereas loneliness has been linked to depression (Cacioppo et al., 2006). As such, perhaps you could take a friend or a group of them to dinner, rather than eating by yourself.

Monitor texting, social media, and Internet use. These things can enable procrastination and cause more anxiety or stress when time is not being properly managed. Moreover, Internet use for leisure purposes has been associated with academic performance, loneliness, sleep deprivation, and missing class (Kubey, Lavin, & Barrows, 2001). As such, it’s important to monitor leisure-like screen time.

Be mindful of the task at hand. Stay focused while you are working on a paper or studying for a particular exam, and try to avoid thinking about other things on your to-do list.

Engage in exercise, yoga, and or mediation. Research has shown that physical fitness may help one to improve brain health (i.e., cognitive functioning, the ability to multi-task; Chaddock et al., 2011; Chaddock et al., 2012), as well as physical and mental health among college students (Penedo & Dahn, 2005). Further, findings indicate that those engaged in mindfulness based stress reduction strategies (i.e., yoga or mediation) have shown positive physical, emotional, and interpersonal changes and also improvements on brain and immune functions (Davidson et al., 2003; Schure, Christopher, & Christopher, 2008). All of this could help you to clear your mind of “clutter.” It’s hard to make time for some of these things when you feel overwhelmed and have a lot of deadlines, yet you could consider physical fitness and mindfulness exercises a part of your study and coping strategies in the next few weeks!

Choose friends that can be beneficial to your emotional health. Having a close relationship with a college friend has a variety of benefits, including helping college students believe they matter (Rayle & Chung, 2007; Swenson, Nordstrom, & Hiester, 2008). Research has linked positive friendships and university belonging to changes in college students’ perceptions of their academic performance and self-worth (Pittman & Richmond, 2008). So, do you have friends? Who are they? Do they provide emotional and appraisal support? Do your friends exhibit a positive affect that can positively influence your own? If they are also depressed, it is possible you could relate to them, yet they could also be bringing you down. The most important point here is that your friends help you to improve your emotional health. If you find that they are bringing you down, perhaps, it is time that you eliminate them from your life and find meaningful friendships.

Don’t put too much pressure on yourself to be perfect.
Are you a perfectionist? Do you put so much pressure on yourself that it impacts your functioning? Perfectionism has been linked to obsessive compulsive disorder, social/trait anxiety, worry, and post-traumatic stress (Kawamura et al., 2001). Thus, there are reasons why you may feel the need to be perfect, yet, it’s important that you find a way to accept and love yourself for all that you are. And, sometimes, you simply need to let things go, feel confident in your work, take a step back, and feel proud of yourself for all that you’ve accomplished thus far! Setting high standards for yourself can be a really great thing…as long as you don’t let it derail you.

Be brave and reach out for help as needed. Can a friend proof-read your work or listen to you vent? If you don’t understand something your professor expects you to, go see him/her during their office hours. And perhaps, more importantly, go see a counselor if you believe you need extra help with anxiety or depression. You have to be proactive in your own self-care. If you don’t, no one else likely will, and you deserve it. Call your university health center. Additionally, national hotlines and resources include:

  • National Suicide Prevention Lifeline’s toll-free, 24-hour hotline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255)
  • Suicide Prevention Resource Center: www.sprc.org
  • National Center for Injury Prevention and Control: www.cdc.gov/ncipc
  • National Institute of Mental Health: www.nimh.nih.gov/index.shtml

References:
Cacioppo, J. T., Hughes, M. E., Waite, L. J., Hawkley, L. C., & Thisted, R. A. (2006). Loneliness as a specific risk factor for depressive symptoms: Cross-sectional and longitudinal analyses. Psychology and Aging, 21, 140 – 151.

Chaddock, L., Hillman, C. H., Buck, S. M., & Cohen, N. J. (2011). Aerobic fitness and executive control of relational memory in preadolescent children. Med Sci Sports Exerc, 43, 344-9.

Chaddock, L., Neider, M. B., Lutz, A., Hillman, C. H., & Kramer, A. F. (2012). Role of childhood aerobic fitness in successful street crossing. Med. Sci. Sports Exerc, 44, 749-753.

Cohen, S., & McKay, G. (1984). Social support, stress, and the buffering hypothesis: A Theoretical Analysis. In A. Baum, S. E. Taylor, & J. E., Singer (Eds.). Handbook of Psychology and Health. (pp.253-267). Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.

Davidson, R. J., Kabat-Zinn, J., Schumacher, J., Rosenkranz, M., Muller, D., Santorelli, S. F., … & Sheridan, J. F. (2003). Alterations in brain and immune function produced by mindfulness meditation. Psychosomatic medicine, 6, 564-570.

Kawamura, K. Y., Hunt, S. L., Frost, R. O., & DiBartolo, P. M. (2001). Perfectionism, anxiety, and depression: Are the relationships independent?. Cognitive Therapy and Research, 25, 291-301.

Kubey, R. W., Lavin, M. J., & Barrows, J. R. (2001). Internet use and collegiate academic performance decrements: Early findings. Journal of Communication, 51, 366-382.

Penedo, F. J., & Dahn, J. R. (2005). Exercise and well-being: a review of mental and physical health benefits associated with physical activity. Current Opinion in Psychiatry, 18, 189-193.

Pittman, L. D., & Richmond, A. (2008). University belonging, friendship quality, and psychological adjustment during the transition to college. The Journal of Experimental Education, 76, 343-362.

Popa, T. A., & Ladea, M. M. (2012). Nutrition and depression at the forefront of progress. Journal of Medicine & Life, 5, 414-419.

Rayle, A. D., & Chung, K. Y. (2007). Revisiting first-year college students’ mattering: Social support, academic stress, and the mattering experience. Journal of College Student Retention: Research, Theory and Practice, 9, 21-37.

Schure, M. B., Christopher, J., & Christopher, S. (2008). Mind–body medicine and the art of self‐care: Teaching mindfulness to counseling students through yoga, meditation, and qigong. Journal of Counseling & Development, 86, 47-56.

Swenson, L. M., Nordstrom, A., & Hiester, M. (2008). The role of peer relationships in adjustment to college. Journal of College Student Development, 49, 551-567.


About Jill Bowers

Jill is a certified family life educator (CFLE), certified family and consumer scientist (CFCS-HDFS), and a postdoctoral fellow in the Department of Human and Community Development at The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. She developed the idea for this project when she was working on a research project where she interviewed emerging adults (18-20 year olds). Work and career related content was something about which the emerging adults were most interested in learning more, and many of the issues that were at the center of their daily concerns were those surrounding their career plans and navigating the job market. Although some of the emerging adults in the study were aware of the fact that they could find information on the Internet to answer their questions or that there were resources available through their college or University, most of them could not recall being required to participate in any professional development courses that helped them with career-related skills and most of them suffered from “information overload” related to their Internet searches for information that would help them with their career paths. For example, some of them had been told about the importance of networking (e.g., at Career Fairs), but they did not really understand what this was or how to do it. Therefore, as a result of her experiences working with emerging adults, Jill initiated this project to help FCS students by providing them with information that will help ensure their success as they navigate the job market.


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