Hi everyone! Thank you so much for being patient during my busy week. Between my Arabic test and normal homework, I really haven’t had much time for anything fun…and then there was a whole situation with one of my clubs that became rather fraught and took up the rest of my energy. I might decide to tell you about that sometime later, although I made a promise to myself to keep this blog free of my (VERY radical) politics…but it really is another story for another time!
What with all the schoolwork, political wrangling, music-making, and socializing, it can sometimes be very difficult to catch my breath. I know for a fact that I am not the only one who is grateful for spring break! But even though only a few days stand between me and freedom, it can be hard to keep my stress levels down.
In the interest of full disclosure, I tend to stress out slightly more than the average person. I like things to be PERFECT, or as close to perfect as they are going to get. I’ve been trying to learn how to accept the few things in my life that are imperfect and enjoy the many things in my life that are just right, and here is my advice to you, dear reader: stress reduction is most definitely a process. No matter how calm and rational you think you are, there are going to be times in your life when you want to tear your hair out and bite everyone’s heads off. SIMULTANEOUSLY. (I would put a picture here, but I just freaked myself out a little bit at the thought of Googling that. Plus, you are all pretty intelligent. I’m sure you get the idea.) However, that is not to say that there aren’t things that you can do to take care of yourself during prelim season!
1) Know yourself. This seems like a tall order, I know, but it’s worth trying to figure out. I am of the school of thought that human beings are highly complex, and it is only ever possible to know pieces of oneself, let alone another person. But regardless of if you’re someone who is new to college and a bit overwhelmed with all the new-ness–friends, classes, professors–or if you are a seasoned Cornell veteran, it might be worth figuring out what you like to do to relax and unwind. Are you the type of person who is recharged after spending time with friends, or do you need some time to yourself before you can really have fun with others? Do you prefer a good book and a cup of tea after a long week, or do you need to let your hair down at a party or a concert? Perhaps the hardest question is this: is the cause of your stress worth it? Are you working hard because you value hard work in the pursuit of knowledge, or are the thoughts of bad grades and disappointed parents digging you into a hole? I know that sometimes, I become so worked up, I can’t even begin to untangle the cause of my emotions; sitting myself down for five minutes and working through things in my head sometimes helps to lift the fog of dread and worry. Long story short, a little bit of self-inquiry and introspection can sometimes be crucial during stressful times.
2) Communicate. Remember what I said about sometimes wanting to tear my own hair out and bite my friends’ heads off? Well, the key to NOT giving in to those urges is above! If you’re having a stressful day or week, sometimes talking it out with a friend or family member can work wonders. On the other hand, if you need to lock yourself in your room and write that paper, by all means, go ahead…but it doesn’t hurt to explain to your loved ones that you are simply having a stressful academic week, rather than snapping at them when they ask you why you look so tired. You’ll be surprised as to what happens when you’re honest with your feelings; more often than not, your friends and family will pitch in and help you when you need it. I know there have been weeks where my mom has been wonderful and has made entire dinners for me, where my friends have sent me text messages during the day to remind me that there is in fact light at the end of the tunnel that is my 12-page paper. But the only way people can help you out is if you ask for help. So talk to your friends and family, yo! Especially during stressful weeks.
3) Move around. This particular nugget of wisdom took me a long time to learn. I am not by any means what one would call athletic. I don’t particularly enjoy being in physical pain or sweating or wearing gym clothes. But I’ve gotten to the point that I love going to the gym, and I miss my workout routine when I have to skip because of a meeting or some other commitment. Why? Well, because of the little endorphins released during exercise, problems that seemed like the end of the world before a 45-minute run seem much less urgent afterwards. I have often been frustrated with a concept while studying only to come back from the gym and not only understand what I’m reading but also enjoy the studying process. Gym memberships at Cornell are pricy, but I see it as an investment in my physical and mental well-being. And if the gym is not your thing, Cornell is a beautiful campus for running or power-walking! There are also plenty of free yoga classes and the like, if you look for them. Heck, sometimes even putting some loud music on and dancing around your room can be enough to help you out of a stress-induced funk!
I will freely admit that this is me sometimes. By myself. In my fuzzy purple bathrobe. You wish you were as cool as me, don’t you?
4) Take breaks. I know that sometimes, you don’t really have a choice but to hole yourself up in your room and just write that damn paper, but even then, I find it helpful to take a fifteen minute break every two hours or so. Breaks are especially important for me if I’m feeling rather uninspired; sometimes reading a good book or knitting a couple rows will allow my mind to relax enough to think about something else besides how much I hate Sir Walter Scott and his stupid non-characters. Short bursts of enjoyable activities can be just the thing to get you through long periods of studying or writing, especially during finals. I tend not to watch TV during these breaks because I am waaaay too easily sucked in, but I always keep a few good novels on hand for those weeks that seem like one long nightmarish test of wills. Knitting is super relaxing for me as well; I know for other people, creative hobbies like drawing or writing are very soothing as well. Find something relaxing that you like to do, and sprinkle it in with all your work!
5) Deep breaths. You’ve probably heard this one before, and I will completely forgive you if you think it’s stupid. I used to think it was the biggest cop-out ever when people would tell me to breathe. Obviously, I must be breathing if I’m talking to you, dumb-butt! But I’ve been getting into meditation and paying attention to my breath, and sometimes when I’m horribly nervous, I tend to either breathe very quickly or just hold my breath. Taking a couple of deep breaths can sometimes help when your mind is panicking and you don’t know which way to turn.
6) Music. I know not everyone plays an instrument, but for me, fluting and singing are pretty great stress-busters. They require a lot of my focus and concentration, so playing the flute or singing allow me to stop worrying about academics for a little while and just enjoy making music! Listening to music helps as well; I like to put some quiet music on when I have a lot of reading to do and not that much time to do it in. Not to get all philosophical, but I think good music reminds me of the beauty in the world, especially when my world looks like one ginormous prelim!
7) Organization. Keeping a planner makes my life so so much easier. Instead of worrying about missed appointments or nebulous homework assignments, all I have to do is look in my trusty agenda! On particularly packed weeks, I will make myself a to-do list for each day of the week. I’m not going to lie: the satisfaction of checking stuff off is pretty great. Keeping all my papers for one class in one binder or folder makes it so that I don’t need to hunt through paper piles to get what I need. I have an electronic folder for each class so that I can save papers and the like directly in them. And even though it’s not always possible, I like to give myself at least a week to study for a test or write a paper; that way I can do it in little bits instead of pulling an all-nighter.
8) Take things one at a time. This might not be the best strategy for everyone, but I personally find it very hard to concentrate on more than one thing at a time. Especially during finals, it terrifies me to see the long list of things I have to do before vacation. Even though I know it’s not true, my scumbag brain convinces me that it must all be done at once, right now, or else the stuff will hit the fan. So I ignore those thoughts, and concentrate on writing one paper, finishing it, turning it in, and starting the next item on my list. Again, this isn’t always possible, as sometimes I will have things due on the same day. But even then, I make sure to prioritize and to not let myself snowball into a pit of panic and despair.
9) Perspective. This strategy was the hardest to learn for me, and in many ways, I think I’m still learning it. I used to be so focused on the grade and impressing my professors that I would often forget why I was here: to learn and to enjoy learning. Fall semester sophomore year, I decided it would be a good idea to take 22 credits. Yeah. I know. I spent much of the semester trying to avoid the mountains of assigned reading, then the guilt that came with not doing the reading, then the anger about the guilt about not doing the reading…long story short, my GPA had never been higher, and my contentment with my life at college had never been lower. When you feel like you just can’t do any more, remember: It’s just a test. It’s just a paper. There is no such thing as “the” test or “the” paper; these assessments are a chance to review what you’ve learned, not a matter of life or death. It’s OK to take a break. It’s OK to ask for help. If it’s Wednesday afternoon and you have a paper due Friday that makes absolutely no sense to you, have a friend read it over or go to office hours and talk it out with a professor. If a deadline is causing you to have nightmares, talk to your professor or ask for an extension. There are always options to curling up in a ball and crying, I promise!
10) Celebrate!! All things must come to an end, even prelim season. I know it doesn’t seem like it when you’re being swept away by a hurricane and there’s a dog named Toto nipping at your heels. Sometimes, I wish I could click my ruby heels and leave all this reading and studying far behind. But when you find yourself with a relatively light workload, treat yourself! Go see a movie or a concert, hang out with friends, catch up on sleep or TV…take advantage of downtime and enjoy your life!
I hope this has been interesting, if not helpful. I know that not everything I listed will be universally applicable, but I thought I would share my coping strategies. What are your strategies for powering through a stressful week? I would love to read about them in the comments!