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The Science of HappinessMJ O'Leary
This certainly is a spring semester like none other. But finals are finals. At the end of the term, work piles up and pressure is high with final grades on the line. Students get tired and burned out.
This year, many are still recovering from the stress of having to move off campus on short notice, and being separated from their friends and normal college routine. The adjustment to learning (and living) at home is ongoing.
Some students, including many international students, remained in campus housing but are experiencing isolation. A significant portion of upperclassmen living off campus also stayed in their housing but again, are studying at home and unable to connect in person with their usual support networks.
In any year, but particularly this one, parents want to help their students finish the spring term not only with academic success but more importantly with balanced and nurtured emotional, mental and physical health.
One of the most effective ways to help your college student minimize stress is, first, to communicate your interest in helping. “I am happy to listen. I know this seems unmanageable. You will get through this.”
Second, extend a lifeline of support and encouragement. “Even though things are weird and unexpected because of the coronavirus, you're right where you need to be at this stage in your college plan. You’re doing great and trying your hardest under challenging circumstances. ”
Finally, check in, follow up and stay connected. Even if your student is living with you at home, most likely they’re doing their work pretty independently and may or may not be sharing a lot of information. Ask if they’re struggling, and find out what’s giving them trouble. Listen. Slip in reminders about the importance of keeping a healthy brain and body. Use these buzzwords:
It’s crucial to remember that how you deliver your reminders and support is more important than what you choose to say. The minute you say, “Maybe you should exercise more often,” you’ve lost their ears.
The Anxiety and Depression Association of America states that 30% of college students report stress negatively affecting their academic performance, and 85% report feeling overwhelmed by everything they have to do at some point within the past year.
These statistics alone indicate students could benefit from parental guidance as they navigate the demands, pressures and deadlines that contribute to college stress.
The coronavirus has upended campus life but the essential steps to organization and stress reduction remain the same. Here are 10 gentle reminders for your student so they can finish the semester with minimal stress:
Start preparing now for the semester end. Organize content. Schedule deadlines and project dates in a planner. Take advantage of virtual office hours with professors and TAs and attend online study sessions.
Organize your study space (see #3). Make a study outline. Review older content and online quizzes. Create an online study group. Try using The Eisenhower Matrix. Also known as the Urgent-Important Matrix, it's a highly effective, easy-to-use planning and decision-making tool for managing time and priorities.
An organized physical space creates an organized mind. Decide the best place(s) for you to study; somewhere comfortable and quiet. If you are studying in your bedroom, take extra trouble to keep the whole room as tidy as possible.
Be aware of the most energetic and alert times of the day and night — when you find you’re best able to focus and retain information. Avoid multitasking (ear buds) when studying. Always keep water within arm’s reach for hydration.
Cramming results from irresponsible planning and causes undue stress on the brain. Waiting until the last minute to attempt to absorb and retain large amounts of content and then pulling all-nighters contributes to poor information storing and test error.
That’s why tip #1 is #1. Remote learning may make procrastinating with assignments more tempting, but commit yourself to advance planning and prep. Allow the most study time for the most difficult and boring classes. Please be careful about how you use stimulants to stay awake and help you concentrate, whether it's coffee, tea or energy drinks with tons of caffeine. Adderall is a prescription drug commonly misused and abused by college students; learn more.
The brain is designed to respond to change and variety. Reading the same subject matter for long periods of time causes the brain to slow retention, especially if it does not sense the information as relevant or worth remembering.
You'll learn better if you take study breaks. As Rick Nauert PhD observes in PsychCentral, “Brief diversions from a task can dramatically improve one’s ability to focus on that task for prolonged periods.”
Having to stay home reduces options, but you still have them. Take fifteen-minute breaks every hour and a half — get out of doors if you’re able. Study for another class for a a short amount of time before reactivating your focus on the original content. This will help with productivity, memory, attention and stress reduction.
We’re washing our hands constantly and even wearing masks when we go out. Don’t forget that sleep hygiene is important, too. College students should get over eight hours of uninterrupted sleep a night, but not more than nine or ten. This is one thing that might actually be easier for students who've had to move home and have fewer (no?) social distractions plus are trying to accommodate themselves to other people in the household.
A smart sleep environment is necessary. White noise, device elimination and comfort all help improve sleep. Power Naps are effective in restoring and rejuvenating brain energy. Hitting the snooze button is not effective, nor is rushing. Your student may not realize that a regular sleep routine supports proper management of mood, cravings, energy levels, memory retention, decision-making and overall wellness.
What we ingest has a direct effect on brain as well as body function. Food is the brain’s fuel (think about what you put in the tank of your vehicle).
College students should eat for sustenance and long-lasting energy. Monitor refined sugar, food packaged in cellophane, and fast foods. Limit caffeine, alcohol and stimulants. Eliminate energy drinks! Choose “clean and green” foods. Incorporate Omega 3 fatty acids (from cold water fish), fiber and good sources of clean protein (hummus versus sour cream dips). The best foods to help fight stress are those containing vitamin C, magnesium, selenium and vitamin B (think nuts).
The benefits of exercise for stress management are well established. But for students, scheduling exercise can be difficult — especially now, living at home with gyms temporarily closed.
Still, it’s essential to fit in some type of vigorous activity each day. Don’t add stress by obsessing about the type of exercise or time spent. Choose something fun or new. Be intentional and consistent. A “walk before you run” mentality is the most effective for maintaining a routine. Journal your activity choices and the feelings that result. You’ll notice improvement in sleep, mood, emotional regulation and overall wellness.
During ordinary times, one of the hardest things to do in college is say “no” to fun invitations and distractions. Your student may not be able to go to parties and hang out in person with friends right now, but there are plenty of other distractions at home, whether it’s video games and movie/TV streaming or being pulled into helping with household chores (which they should share, within reason).
College is still your student's top priority. They need to protect their time, energy and health. Parents can support this goal. If your student is working part-time right now — and many students have continued to do this because it’s critical to affording their education — encourage them to limit hours at their job to 10–15/week max.
There’s little need to present statistics on young adults and their smartphones. Study after study has shown that usage in this age group is high, and distraction even higher.
A powerful and eye-opening exercise is to have your student record how much time they spend on their devices (not counting academics) in a 24-hour period. Simply being more conscious of this should help free up time to study, check in with friends and relax/exercise. And as ever, be sure to shut off devices at least an hour before sleep.
Being mindful is a forgotten skill in our culture. We’re busy all the time and don’t think it’s okay to “do nothing” and “simply be.” Well, hello quarantine! Here’s the perfect chance to give yourself permission to invite boredom and embrace a lack of activity.
It’s healing to be aware of the sights, smells, sensations, tastes and sounds of the present moment. Now and then, choose a spot in the neighborhood (or one you can bike or drive to), take nothing (i.e., your phone) with you, and just “be.” Notice your breathing, and watch thoughts pass through your mind without connecting or judging them. Walk with eyes and ears open. This is an effective mindfulness technique. Magic. (Of course, many of these reminders are things we all need right now!)