Handling Academic Stress (and How to Feel Better)

Hey, y’all

So exams have started up, and the semester has taken off in full force, and I find myself consistently overwhelmed with what needs to be done: course work, real work (aka: my job), and everything else has really taken a toll on my mental (and subsequently physical) health. I figured a lot of other students are also dealing with this, so I wanted to address it.

First of all, it’s ok to have bad days. It’s ok to have bad weeks, even; it is perfectly natural to feel overwhelmed and in admitting this, you are not admitting weakness. Last week for me was pretty terrible: I didn’t go to my quantum mechanics class all week and haven’t been able to get up for my history course at 9:30am (I will probably drop that course). Stress immobilizes me — I can’t get anything done, even though I’m fully aware that I should be getting things done. This is known as executive dysfunction, and it’s quite pervasive amongst students, especially other students with disabilities. Consequently, I have been feeling guilty for not being able to attend class and becoming quite anxious and overwhelmed with how ostensibly far behind I am (which really isn’t how far behind I actually am) in keeping up with the material.

Sometimes, you need to take a step back, recognize that you’re having some trouble, and reach out for help. And that’s what I did — I reached out to my friends; my personal network of supportive people in the same academic environment. I asked to study with them, to have lunch with them — pretty much to do anything with them. Because if I was allowed to be by myself while feeling bad about everything, I would just dwell on my mistakes, which does no good; if I want to be better and do better, I need to focus on preparing for future situations in which I can rectify my mistakes.

I also put together a few things that I’d consider “academic self-care”. Doing these things helped me to feel more productive and more confident about my abilities and my probability of succeeding this semester:

  • restructuring my time efficiently every day (sometimes even by the hour)
  • cleaning my room (things can get a bit messy and cluttered when you’re feeling down, so being able to just pick up a bit, nothing strenuous, really brightened my mood)
  • utilizing a to-do list, without a planner (planners are scary for me — they’re daunting: I hate the constricting feeling I get while writing things down in one, so I use a little blank notebook to write reminders to myself. This is very similar to the first bit of restructuring time)
  • hang out with friends (activity doesn’t matter, just being around someone helps)
  • get a good amount of sleep (and by that I mean a healthy amount of sleep, between 6-9 hours)

These are the things I do when I notice I begin to feel overwhelmed or distraught, and they’ve really helped — especially the last one. I cannot emphasize enough how much getting an adequate amount of sleep helps with stabilizing moods; it is typically the first thing I step back and ask myself, “am I getting enough sleep?”. Of course, the answer is usually a resounding “no”.

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Wolfram Alpha statistics on the probabilities of other symptoms occurring simultaneously with elevated levels of stress; so my sleep disturbances and bout of depression is quite unsurprising.

I’m sure you’ve noticed a couple of things about the list, like the fact that I don’t take bubble baths. I don’t take long walks, I don’t light candles, I don’t really do too many of the things discussed in other self-care checklists. This is typically because I don’t have the time or energy to do all these things that require a bunch of prep work. For instance, my bathtub would need to be thoroughly cleaned before I decided to immerse myself in a bubble bath, which takes an inordinate amount of energy to do — something which I simply don’t have the spoons to do while in these depressive states.

It’s no surprise then that your circumstances will dictate your self-care habits. All I can really say stress (pun intended) is that you rely on the support system you have in place. Whether it be friends, family, a partner, whatever the case; it makes dealing with things much easier when you have someone else helping to shoulder the burden. Ask them for notes on classes you missed, help with understanding material, or even just ask what they’d do if they were in your position.

The more I started being proactive about my mental health, the easier it was to notice when I started to feel certain ways — and the sooner I was able to take care of it. That’s how it is now: I caught everything early. Just the fact that I have a good enough mindset to be able to take the time and write this post is proof of that.

Hopefully this post will help someone out there also struggling with their course load. You’re never alone. Take care.

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