With final exams right around the corner, many students may be feeling the pressure. If you are a new student who hasn’t yet experienced finals at UCI, your feelings of stress and nervousness may be heightened. Unfortunately, we all know that stress has a negative impact on our mental and physical health. But how can we manage anxiety and maintain healthy habits during exams and other times of stress? To get expert advice on this topic, we sat down with Sarah Pressman, Ph.D., (Professor of Psychological Science, Director of the Stress, Emotion & Physical Health Laboratory, and new Associate Dean of the Division of Undergraduate Education) for a quick Q&A.

Q: Can you talk a little bit about your research and area of expertise?

A: My research area is at the intersection of health psychology and positive psychology. The focus of my work is directed at understanding the health and physiological harms resulting from stress, and how we can protect people from them. Most recently, I’ve been studying how we can take advantage of positive emotions (happiness, calmness, etc.), positive behaviors (smiling, leisure activities, etc.), and positive social relationships to buffer the harms of stress on our bodies.

Q:  Why is it important to focus on healthy habits during times of heightened stress (like midterms and exam week)?

A: GREAT QUESTION! Exams are the perfect toxic combination of triggers that can lead to you getting sick, and the reason to focus on healthy habits is really an obvious one: the healthier you are, the better your performance! 

Now what do I mean by a toxic combination of triggers? First, we know that stress, especially the uncontrollable type that happens when you face a big test that you don’t know much about, can alter your immune function in all sorts of negative ways that make you more likely to catch an infection. Essentially, because your body thinks that you are stressed due to some type of imminent physical danger—the type humans faced thousands of years ago (think saber-toothed tiger attack)—it directs all of your energy into fight or flight pathways (e.g., muscles) as opposed to slower moving physical processes like secondary immune function. What this means is that if you are exposed to a cold, flu, or even coronavirus, you may be more likely to get it. Unfortunately, finals for Fall Quarter take place at a time when many of these viruses are circulating in high levels and when students are working closely with their peers in study groups and on final projects. On top of this bad combination, other habits that many students engage in during finals, such as drinking to distract from stress or pulling all-nighters, also compromise immune function.

So, plan ahead. Take vitamins. Wear a mask when working with study groups. Get enough sleep. Don’t give up on exercise. And try to keep stress levels down by studying in advance and working with friends to make the work more manageable and fun.

Q: In addition to these suggestions, what other positive practices do you recommend to help students manage stress?

A: I feel like we could dedicate an entire blog post to this since there are so many! Generally, I advise people to pick activities based on how they are feeling and what they have energy for. There’s a great study (Brooks, 2014) that showed when people were really nervous about something, they performed better when they tried to reappraise their anxiety as excitement, as opposed to the more typical advice which might be to “calm down.” In some cases, this strategy may not work when your body is pumped full of adrenaline from all of the stress. If you are feeling that full of anxiety, you could try what Brooks did and find ways to think about your exam as an opportunity to prove what you know, show how much you’ve learned, be creative, etc. Alternatively, you might try to do what your body thinks you need to do, which is to exert that energy. Go for a run, take a kickboxing class, just do something to get the negative physical arousal out of your body. You might also try volunteering somewhere. Not only does this provide an outlet for negative energy, but it also offers the opportunity to help others and make new friends, which also comes with positive benefits. 

If you are feeling more burned out, tired, or just sort of bleh, there are a ton of activities from Positive Psychology that can help. Try activities such as gratitude expression (e.g., the three good things activity), which has been shown to help people sleep better at night, and savor the positive things that happen in your day-to-day life. Spend time connecting with nature, which is physically and psychologically restorative, or find something that allows you to enter a state of flow. You can also try a self-affirmation exercise that reminds you that there is so much more to you than just being a student. To do this last one, spend a few minutes writing about some of your values. It might be your friends, your independence, your creativity, your sense of humor, your family, your religious values, or so on. Write about when and how these values are important to you and the thoughts and feelings that come up when you think about them. Doing this, especially before you are about to do a stressful exam, is really helpful in protecting against the threats to your self-esteem if you don’t do as well because it helps you remember that there is so much more to life than that one test. Don’t feel like writing about your values? Try writing about other things like your happiest life experiences, your goals, or even just writing out all of your negative feelings. Writing is a powerful way to improve your mood, and it can even help you find meaning in the bad things that happen to you, like flunking an exam.

If you are interested in exploring other great mindfulness activities, then the Great Good website offers some excellent suggestions. 

Q: Staying positive in times of stress is definitely important, but being positive all the time isn’t good either. What are your thoughts on “toxic positivity”?

A: Toxic positivity is as toxic as it sounds. Researchers in the field of positive psychology and affective science have shown that excess pursuit of positive emotion is harmful to health. No one who researches emotion would want you to be happy ALL the time. That’s because we know that negative emotions are adaptive. Every emotion is paired with a complex series of behavioral and physical responses that help us survive. There is a reason for all emotions, even negative ones like worry, stress, and anger. 

The problem isn’t experiencing these feelings; it’s letting them go on for too long. This is when your mind and body suffer. So for example, if you have a fight with someone and you are still upset and stressed about it five days later, this puts a lot of wear and tear on your body. That said, this is a place where positive emotion can help. Happiness and other positive feelings are known as “undoers” of stress and negative emotion. Think of a time when you were really freaked out, but then someone cracks a joke and the laughter just melts a bit of the stress away. That’s a real finding and something you can take advantage of. No one expects you to be happy 100% of the time through finals, but when you are feeling overwhelmed, finding even a few moments of positivity can give your body a much-needed break.

Q: According to psychologist and author Kelly McGonigal, thinking about stress as harmful has measurable negative impacts on physical health. Do you have practical ideas for “making friends” with our stress response? 

The big thing is to remember that so much of stress is in your head, which means that the solutions to it can be too. If you can find a way to believe that you have the skills to handle the stress, that you have the resources to do well, that you have friends to support you, and so on, your body will not respond as severely to these types of stressors. Also, if you can think about all of the things that are happening in your body during stress and try to reflect on why they might be helpful, they actually can be. So instead of thinking about how awful it is that your heart is racing, say to yourself: “Wow, my body is really energized to take this test. I’m going to use this extra power to study harder and be more focused.” Research is showing us time and time again that mindset really matters and can completely change how our bodies respond to stress and the effect it has on us.

Q: What advice would you give students who feel unhappy because of their exam performance or grades?

A: One piece of advice I would give is to simply not dwell on the bad grade. This type of rear view focus (sometimes called rumination) doesn’t really help anything and it can be harmful to your body since it still believes that it’s under stress. Instead, take the negative feelings and translate them into action. Think about what you can do to prevent that from happening again. Could you manage things in a more positive way by studying ahead of time, planning better, or creating a support group to work with? Focus on the things you actually have control over that will make a difference during the next exam period.

If you are still dealing with a lot of negative emotions, there are a ton of things you can do to help calm down. Everyone has different coping strategies that work for them, and you have to find the right ones for you. Many people find that vigorous exercise is a good way to get rid of anxiety and anger. Some like journaling to try and find some meaning from the event. Others might find peaceful yoga or meditation better for dealing with uncontrollable rushing thoughts. Spending time with friends or family is also a great stress buffer, and they may even have some advice or support that can help you with your performance in the future. The bottom line is that there is no one right way to move past feeling upset over exams, so it’s important to experiment and find what works for you.

If you’re feeling stressed about exams, UCI offers an array of campus resources that can help! For instance, students can sign up for a class at the ARC or check out group workshops offered at the UCI Counseling Center. You can also keep an eye out for upcoming, stress-relieving events hosted by UCI Student Wellness & Health Promotion.

Finally, if you’re looking for academic support leading up to finals, the team at LARC is always happy to assist! Meet with one of our academic coaches one-on-one, sign up for a LARC tutorial, or check out our best learning tips. For more study strategies, check out some of the resources The Learning Scientists have to offer.

Please don’t hesitate to contact us for additional information.