Anxiety doesn’t have to cause finals blues


Maddy Kameny – Staff Illustrator

By Mariam Shalaby / Columnist

My eyes flew open, and the voice in my head greeted me with a frenzied recitation of my to-do list.

It was 6 a.m. — tasks for chemistry, biology, violin, composition and housework ran through my head.

An hour later, I stood in Hillman Library. As I waited for an elevator to take me to the fourth floor, I couldn’t help but rock back and forth on my heels. Why was this elevator so slow? With a sigh of exasperation, I turned around and ran up the stairs. That to-do list still ran on loop through my mind.

This was me exactly one year ago.

There was a knot in my chest from the moment I woke up until I crashed on my bed 18 hours later. I didn’t know whether it was from the excess caffeine I consumed, the lack of sleep or my task list constantly running through my mind. But this routine continued all the way through finals week, and it was exhausting.

Pushing ourselves too hard — or too little — is not a good thing. Extreme anxiety leads to poor decision-making, lower test performance and a worse mood. Maintaining moderate levels of anxiety throughout the semester encourages higher academic performance.

Stress and anxiety results in a lack of motivation or focus — among other physical ailments —  according to the Mayo Clinic.

According to multiple studies — including one by UCLA professor of psychiatry Andrew J. Fuligni, UCLA graduate student Cari Gillen-O’Neel and California State University, Northridge child and adolescent development professor Virginia W. Huynh — cramming is actually counterproductive. They found that students who sacrificed sleep time to study were more likely to have more academic problems.

Seems pretty obvious, right? Well, not until I was waist deep in my own worries at the end of fall semester did I decide to change something.

When spring semester rolled around, I relaxed my approach — but I also took on more responsibility. I might have taken it a little too far. In short, I didn’t accommodate the extra pressure that would result.

The voice in my head still nagged, but I ignored it. After being in Godzilla mode at the end of fall semester, I felt put off by the idea of being anxious. So I slowed down my life and told the voice in my head to scram.

But that was problematic. I didn’t just stop waking up early — I lacked the drive to get started early and get things done immediately. This turned into a loss of foresight and motivation to think ahead about the consequences of taking my time. Instead of being hyperconscious about my time, I wasn’t managing it enough.

A study from the Journal of Educational Psychology found that students who felt like they had more control over their time reported better academic performance, increased work and life satisfaction and less role overload. They even reported less bodily tension.

Once spring finals week arrived, I panicked. I found myself not as stressed as I had been the prior semester, but even more so. Instead of the voice in my head being purely anxious, now it was reprimanding me too.

By calmly ignoring my responsibilities, I had put myself into the position of having to cram — which was just as harmful as the toxic sleep schedule I suffered through the semester before.

One study at University of California, San Diego wanted to see whether time gaps between study sessions have an effect on material recollection on test day. They found that students who spaced their study sessions performed better than students who crammed.

I noticed this. After both fall and spring finals weeks, the information that I crammed the night before the exam left as quickly as it had come.

In fact, consistent, routine study sessions with frequent breaks are more effective methods of learning and retaining information long term. For me, this is especially important, as I’m studying information and skills I’ll need in the future.

I can’t master biochemistry without a solid foundation in organic chemistry. In fact, nobody can.

University of South Florida psychologist Doug Rohrer and UCSD distinguished professor of psychology Hal Pashler conducted a study on the retention of information. They found that “mass learning” — or cramming — hindered long-term retention.

A healthy level of anxiety helps maintain my motivation just enough to stay on top of my work without making me unhappy.

If you feel too stressed for your own good, it’s time to cut back. Your mental well-being is much more important than a grade on an exam. Plus, your healthy mind is more likely to perform well than your mind functioning on too much caffeine and too little sleep.

Don’t let finals slip into your dreams and dominate your life.

Mariam Shalaby primarily writes on social change and foreign culture for The Pitt News.

Write to her at [email protected]