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ISSUE 117 VOL 5 PUBLISHED 10/17/2003

Let's talk about STRESS

By Jenna Barke
Copy Editor

Friday, October 17, 2003

It’s a beautiful time of year at St. Olaf. Colors are changing and leaves are slowly falling from the trees – much like the falling spirits of students when they think of this week’s dreaded event: midterms.

Exams are common sources of stress for college students, so students who have gone through this week feeling completely overwhelmed are definitely not alone. St. Olaf students use many different ways to try and make these stressful times a bit easier.

Many students need help staying awake during weeks when heavy workloads lead to late nights. Coffee and other caffeinated beverages are common “stay-awake” methods students use.

Is high caffeine intake during midterms a good idea? Shirley Herreid, Health Services nurse practitioner, says that the health risks of high caffeine consumption depend on the amount of caffeine a student normally consumes during non-midterm weeks. When asked how much caffeine is a “healthy” amount, Herreid warned against using a set guideline to determine a “correct” level of consumption for everyone, explaining that levels of caffeine tolerance vary. “If you normally drink 4-6 cups of coffee per day,” Herreid said, “then drinking an additional cup or two during midterms will not affect you severely. However, if you usually just have one cup to wake you up in the morning, and then suddenly jump to 4-6 cups a day during midterms, that’s unhealthy.”

Herreid noted that over-the-counter drugs, like Vivarin and No-Doz, are essentially “the same as caffeinated beverages” and have “the potential for the same kinds of problems” that coffee and colas cause, such as nervousness, sleeplessness and irritability. (One tablet of either medication contains as much caffeine as one cup of coffee.) Elizabeth Ghandour ‘06 noted that just because a pill keeps a student awake doesn’t necessarily mean it assists in his or her ability to study. When using No-Doz, she found that she was “awake, but not focused.” Vivarin and No-Doz are both available for purchase in the St. Olaf bookstore. Warnings on the back of both boxes, however, say it best: “Do not use as a substitute for sleep.”

Stress and college exams often go hand-in-hand, but staying healthy is a key to making it through stressful times. Herreid believes that “there is definitely a relationship between stress and sickness.” She commented that the Health Services office almost always sees an increase in illness during the weeks of midterms and finals. She rationalized this phenomenon by the fact that stress often causes a decrease in the immune system’s resistance to disease. A student under a heavy amount of stress runs an increased risk of contracting a virus or infection, especially a cold, and once a student becomes ill, stress will usually only make matters worse.

This is not to say that all stress is a bad thing. The urge to succeed can motivate individuals to take action and achieve their goals. The adrenaline that helps a person score a goal or turn on a burst of speed at the end of a race is positive stress. Wanting to do well proves that a student takes academics seriously.

Students should make sure, however, to take time to take care of themselves during high- stress times such as midterms. Roommates, friends, neighbors and family can all provide student’s with support. If the stress of midterms becomes too much to handle, don’t let it simmer: go vent to someone, or go on a written rampage and then throw the paper away. Recognize feelings and let them out so they won’t become impediments to productivity. There is a British proverb that says, “a problem shared is a problem halved.” Lean on someone when the stress of school becomes to much too face alone.

Don’t dwell on academics and studying every hour of the day. The American Institute of Stress (AIS) suggests clearing one’s mind of studying before going to sleep for the night. When students close their textbooks and hop into bed immediately, their minds will still be going around in circles. After a night of studying, take a short walk or go visit a friend. Call an end to studying for the day and truly unwind.

Recognize when it’s time to step out of midterm study mode. Don’t cram all night before an exam, and don’t try to learn anything the morning of a test. The AIS says to stop studying an hour before the test. One more hour won’t be enough to learn anything one doesn’t already know. Before heading off to the testing room, students should sit back and let their brains recharge.

Students can prevent the negative effects of stress by respecting their bodies every day. Exercise, enough sleep and a balanced diet are simple ways to combat stress before it starts.

The most important thing for students to know when under midterm stress is that it is okay to feel overwhelmed and out of control, but it is also okay to take time to care of themselves. It is okay to worry about doing well, but it also okay to know that one exam is not an indication of one’s worth. It is okay to be stressed, but it is also okay to relax: during midterm week, it is all about practicing moderation.

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