Lately, biological sciences senior Madison Walter can usually be found in the Robert E. Kennedy Library. That is, while she’s not in class.
“I study between all my classes, and then probably about six hours every night,” Walter said.
Her time spent studying is just more than the Cal Poly-suggested 25 to 35 hours per week, but Walter finds it necessary, especially during the middle of the quarter when her midterms are rampant and often overlapping, she said.
According to Martin Bragg, director of Health and Counseling Services on campus, Walter is not the only one who feels stress during midterms.
“Usually in weeks three and four, our business builds throughout the rest of the quarter,” Bragg said.
Health and Counseling Services has a unique perspective on student stress because it is a destination for struggling students. Bragg said anxiety and depression make up the majority of the issues plaguing the students they see.
“The academic stress can bleed through to other things,” Bragg said. “It can cause stress in relationships, it can trigger some depression and it’s a very difficult thing.”
This characteristic of stress is what the staff at the counseling services department strives to help students manage when it becomes too much to handle, Bragg said. According to Bragg, stress levels resemble a bell curve.
“You don’t perform at your very best if you have no stress whatsoever, and a little stress improves up to a middle point where stress maximizes your performance,” Bragg said. “But at a certain point, stress begins to degrade your performance because it interferes with your ability to concentrate.”
And concentration is a crucial thing to have when midterms, projects and papers are piling up as they tend to do midway through the quarter. Psychology assistant professor Julie Spencer-Rodgers looks at stress and concentration levels from a physiological standpoint.
“In general, the most noticeable effect on students is its effects on cortisol, which is a stress hormone,” Spencer-Rodgers said. “But cortisol is actually good for you in small doses — it’s the fight-or-flight syndrome.”
Spencer-Rodgers also said while stress may start in the brain, it can take a toll on the entire body.
“The problem is that when you’re chronically under stress, (cortisol) accumulates and your body doesn’t down regulate, so it starts creating problems in your body,” she said. “It lowers your immune function, it lowers reproductivity, it leads to a buildup of fat in the body and so on.”
Triggers and causes aside, the main question involving stress usually asks the best ways to alleviate it. If the Recreation Center has been more crowded as of late, it may be due to the common belief that exercise is a beneficial way of managing stress.
“I usually get migraines when I’m stressed, but if I work out and go to the gym that usually helps,” Walter said.
Bragg and Spencer-Rodgers both also mentioned exercise as a stress management technique. For those who prefer other stress management methods, Health and Counseling Services offers programs to provide students with tips.
“The Health Center works with other departments like Student Academic Services to offer programming throughout the year to help students deal with issues like stress and study skills,” Bragg said.
Personal attention is also provided by Health and Counseling Services, if necessary. Generally, a student who goes into Counseling Services for stress or anxiety will first go through a screening asking about sleeping and eating habits, caffeine and alcohol usage, and overall academic standing. From there, a course of action is taken depending on the student’s needs.
“We might give them some initial advice and then set them up to see a counselor individually, or if we have a group that seems to be worthwhile, we’ll have them do that,” Bragg said.
Staying on top of work during midterm season is also essential for keeping stress levels down.
“I would say the best way (to manage it) is to take your stress seriously. If you’re falling behind or if you’re not understanding your instructions, the thing you need to do is to take that seriously and act on it,” Bragg said. “Don’t allow yourself to do things that kill stress but don’t advance resolving the stressor.”
Spencer-Rodgers echoed the sentiment that there is a difference between taking a beneficial break and simply putting stresses off for later.
“Presumably, if you’ve been keeping up with your reading and your studying, pulling an all-nighter the night before your midterm is not going to help you, it’s going to decrease your performance,” Spencer-Rodgers said.
These are only a few of many methods for stress management, but for now, the best thing to do this midterm season might simply be taking one day at a time.
“I usually get a lot done at night and then I’ll kind of sleep in and do it all over again the next day,” Walter said.