Valdosta Daily Times

December 9, 2013

Managing stress, in the classroom and on the job

Stuart Taylor
The Valdosta Daily Times

VALDOSTA — If you wandered through the campus of Valdosta State University this week, you saw the tell-tale signs of finals week: students haunting the library at all hours, coffee cups stacked on coffee cups, sleep-starved graduate students stumbling from library to classroom to library.

For most students, it’s a stressful time, full of last-minute paper and all-nighters spent playing catch-up on year-long assignments.

But they are not alone.

Every semester, VSU’s Counseling Center hosts multiple workshops and seminars dealing with time and stress management. And whether it’s been a few years since you were in college or you skipped it all together, there’s a lot you can learn about tackling large, stressful projects, whether at school, work or home.

“I tell people that just like you learn differently, you also manage stress differently,” said Rebecca Smith, a licensed professional counselor with VSU’s Counseling Center. “There are people who are auditory learners and there are people who are auditory relaxers.”

Generally speaking, there are three kinds of learning styles: auditory, visual and kinesthetic. Just like you might learn better through seeing, listening or physical experience, one of them might relax you more. It is important to note that your learning style and relaxing style can be completely different, with a kinesthetic learner relaxing through guided imagery or an auditory learner relaxing by doing something physical.

Smith helps students determine their relaxing style by using guided imagery, taking students through an imaginary scene — say, a sunny day at the beach — and asking them what tactile sensations stand out: the sound of the waves, the feel of the sand, the sun bouncing off the sea. What stands out to you is a good indicator of what relaxes you.

“I tell people to play around with their personality. What works for one person might not work for another.”

Smith also works with students to get to the root of the problem, the cause of the stress.

“For some people, they’re creating their own stress. They’re not managing their time well. They’re drinking too much or they’re doing something that’s detrimental to them. If I can get them to see their coping mechanism isn’t helping them, we can reduce the negative coping skills and reduce their stress.”

Of course, some stress is rational, like walking into a meeting to give a presentation you haven’t prepared. But then there’s irrational stress, feeling like you aren’t prepared no matter how much you have studied and planned. And it goes beyond feelings of doom; under strong stress, your brain drains resources away from your prefrontal cortex, the decision maker of the brain, resulting in a temporary 10-20 point drop in your I.Q.

There are a couple of techniques you can utilize to counter that. A quick dash up and down a set of stairs or a quick set of pushups can help to rid your body of nervous energy. Deep breaths send more oxygen to the brain, convincing it to relax. For some people, visualizing the stressful situation in advance can help them work through it, figuring out what to do in advance. For others, that visualizing can trigger a panic attack.

While everyone’s brains are similar, they’re still distinct. And that gets at something that’s come up several times in this article: People are different.

As such, you shouldn’t compare how you study, how you learn or how you respond to stress to someone else. Your business partner may coast on five hours of sleep a night while you can’t function without nine. You might procrastinate until the last day and do fine, while your spouse plans everything out days ahead of time.

If a student is procrastinating and doing well, Smith encourages them not to change. Some people perform better under the pressure of deadlines. But for those who overstress under pressure, Smith works with them on their structure and their planning.

“Some people need that pressure, some people crumble under the pressure.”

Cell phones can be a kind of double-edged sword. On the one hand, a torrent of incoming text messages and Facebook likes can keep your brain distracted from focusing. But Smith has found a way to utilize cell phones, encouraging students to keep an active calendar and to set alarms to remind them when to start studying, when to take a break and when to get back to work. That said, she does advise them to compartmentalize their texting and social media, putting it on their schedule and turning off notifications when they’re working.

“For some people, technology is their worst enemy ... (but for others) their cell phone is their best friend.”

You can also get a lot of mileage out of the basics: get enough sleep, take a multivitamin, drink water, get some exercise.

As opposed to studying for six hours straight, study for a couple of hours, take a break, and then study again. Like a muscle, your brain can only go so long before needing to recover and regroup.

And take notes. Everything you learn about how you work best on this project can be applied to the next one, whether it’s a final paper or an end-of-the-year budget.