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Give Yourself Credit: Maintaining Mental Wellness During Exam Season

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Riamarie Panachikal
MATES Advocacy Director
Thu, 11/29/2018 - 10:30

Guest blog by Riamarie Panachikal, MATES Advocacy Director

Whether it's your first time or your last, it's quite common to feel a bit uneasy going into exam season. After 12 weeks of lectures, tackling exams may feel like a hair-raising and exhausting endeavour. In light of this, it’s crucial to have reliable coping mechanisms.

Broadly speaking, coping mechanisms are a form of self-care and describe the steps someone takes in order to manage the parts of their life that bring them stress. It is important to note that stress manifests differently for everyone and coping with stress is a growing process.

“I think during exams, just because of the competitive nature in university and the focus on being the absolute best, people assume that everyone is working their butts off and that taking study breaks don’t actually work,” Haley Bauman said, one of the ambassador directors with UW MATES and a third-year Therapeutic Recreation student. “But keep doing the things that make you who you are, because your grades, while important, are definitely not who you are.”  

To better understand the stress brought on by end of term assignments and exams, UW MATES’ executive team sat down to discuss their experiences with the topic and how they have coped in the past.

Staying social while studying

It can be hard to pencil in time with our friends during exam season, but often times staying social can make a big impact on mood and our productivity while studying.

Megan Wright, the events director at UW MATES, is currently in her third year of Social Development Studies, and getting ready to tackle yet another round of exams. While Wright prepares with ease now, she described her first exam season as the very opposite experience.

“I treated my first exam similar to my high school exams and did not study enough or properly,” Wright said. “I  was stressed and anxious, and my regular routine was gone so I realized I was skipping meals and not getting enough sleep. I noticed a huge dip in my mood.”

In Wright’s case, the biggest change she made was shifting how she studied. She’s learned that studying in groups, whether it's with classmates or friends, can often help to maintain motivation and positivity.

“I find that being with other people tends to help me remember to eat and take breaks during studying and to not get overwhelmed because we are all taking care of each other together,” Wright said.

While group studying sessions can be beneficial for some, that might not be the case for everyone. This doesn’t mean that staying social has completely lost its benefits. It’s easy to feel stressed, and oftentimes discussing those feelings with others can help to alleviate the experience. Whether that support network involves your family, your friends of services on campus like MATES, taking time to discuss stress is a coping mechanism that rarely fails. 

“I always remind myself that my supports are there for a reason and that I shouldn’t feel guilty about talking to them about any stresses I’m experiencing — they are always very insightful,” Bauman said.

Secrets to smart solo study sessions

Not everyone is a social study-er, and extended studying by ourselves can sometimes begin to feel overwhelming and tiring. Implementing slight changes to our daily routine can impact how we approach studying and our mood.

Breaking these study session with small self-care routines can allow for refreshing periods away from coursework. Plan for a bit of time between studying and let that period be completely designated for another de-stressing activity.

While larger breaks can be useful, even small activities like washing your face, attending to your skincare routine, reading a book, or watching an episode of your favourite TV show can help to clear your mind. These small self-care routines can often be thought of as rewards after periods of studying.

Get those gains, get those grades

Exam season can demand a lot out of students, both physically and mentally. For many students, alleviating stress and self-care during this season requires paying close attention to your body.

During her first exam season, Loretta Sinn explained that she struggled less with stress management and more with finding motivation. Sinn is currently completing her third year of Kinesiology and is an ambassador director with UW MATES.

“I found myself … feeling sluggish and groggy during the day,” Sinn said. “To combat the sluggishness I felt during exam season, I tried to exercise as much as I could during my breaks such as going for a quick run, doing pilates, or going on a walk just to get some fresh air.”

With the colder weather in full effect, students might find it harder to make the trip down to the gym. Smaller activities that are physically engaging, like stretching, yoga, or even walking to campus, can also prove to be also effective. 

Sinn stresses the importance of listening to your body.

“When you’re hungry, thirsty, feeling groggy, or sleepy, it’s a signal that your body is in distress and needs attention,” Sinn said. “In the past, I used to ignore these signals and tried to plow through a lecture or an assignment; however, this really affected my well-being and my productivity.”

Maintaining routines during exam season can help to add more balance.

“I try to stick to the same routines that I maintain throughout the term,” Bauman said. “I still wake up and go to bed at the same time rather than studying late or waking up early to get work done.”

Ways to stay motivated

Like Sinn, many students struggle to maintain motivation during exam season.

“One thing I have really found beneficial for me is just going with how I’m feeling,” Bauman said. “If I really can’t focus on studying something, I don’t force myself. ”

Building motivation may seem like a frustrating experience. A lack of motivation might be because your current approach to studying is not actually working for you, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t other approaches that can be implemented. Often times this might require re-thinking what kind of learner you are and finding different approaches for your learning style.

One change made by Katelyn Pavey, the volunteer/internal director at UW MATES and a third-year student studying in the Sexuality, Marriage and Families department, is studying topics in smaller chunks over longer periods. For Pavey, reading her notes over a few times isn’t effective. Instead, she breaks down course material by summarizing it out loud to herself.

Planning for balance and working towards achieving it are in themselves goals, and sometimes the process can be overwhelming. Anastasiya Mihaylova, the engineering director at UW MATES and a second-year Geological Engineering student, practices grounding techniques for moments like these. Grounding techniques are things we do to bring ourselves into the present moment. This can prevent our mind from wandering to negative or distracting thoughts.

“Something that really helps me to ground myself is writing down everything that needs to be done over a weekend or for the upcoming week,” Mihaylova said. “This allows me to visualize my to-do list and assess what is a manageable workload.”

As exam season approaches, UW MATES will stop offering their regular hours. If you would like to speak with a MATES volunteer, you can book an appointment through mates@uwaterloo.ca.