How to Manage Stress During Finals
April 25, 2023
Lucy Falls, MPH, RD, LDN
Registered Dietician - Health & Wellness Specialist
End of School Year Stress
Longer days, warmer temperatures and more things on the calendar means springtime is ramping up. This can be a busy time of year, especially for students, as semesters end, exams and final projects are due and the excitement of graduation looms. All of these things can cause stress, which in turn can affect self-care, including our eating habits. While stress is a natural human response and everyone experiences stress to some degree, the way we respond to stress makes a big difference in our overall well-being4. Knowing that the brain and gut are intrinsically connected, it is important to maintain a well-balanced diet during times of high stress.
Effects of Stress
Stress increases our body’s metabolic needs and places a greater demand for energy and nutrients1 which is why it is important to stay on top of your nutrition during stressful times. When we feel stressed, we may reach for foods higher in saturated fats and sugars. This could be due to our bodies’ biological mechanism of wanting quick and efficient energy when our bodies are under stress1. Also, busy schedules may mean less time to prepare meals so we are often looking for the easiest and fastest option to fill us up.
Nutrition can be a way of supporting your body and can help combat the negative impact of stress. It is important to make sure you are maintaining at least three balanced meals a day that include protein, fruits and vegetables and starches rich in fiber. The balance of these components will provide your bodies with all the macronutrients it needs to keep blood sugar levels stable throughout the day. Due to increased needs during high stress times, some vitamins could be depleted more than normal. Some key nutrients that help control stress include:
- B Vitamins- B Vitamins support the function of adrenal glands, where hormone production takes place. Adrenal glands are vital in regulating our body’s response to stress. Sources include wholegrains, nuts and seeds.
- Vitamin C- Vitamin C is stored in the adrenal gland and is required to make cortisol, a hormone that helps our bodies respond to stress by regulating blood pressure, immune function and anti-inflammatory processes5. Vitamin C is found in fresh fruits and vegetables.
- Magnesium- Magnesium may become depleted in times of stress and symptoms of deficiency include fatigue, anxiety and insomnia. Dark leafy vegetables, whole grains, nuts and seeds are high in magnesium.
Tips for Managing Stress:
- Watch your caffeine intake. Caffeine can suppress hunger cues, which could cause you to skip meals and feel more fatigued.
- Plan ahead. Bring snacks or meals with you so you aren’t relying on the vending machine or fast-food.
- Take a break. Step away from your work or studying so you can be mindful/present as you eat.
- Connect with others. Use mealtimes to connect and socialize. Stressful times can be isolating, and realizing you are not alone can be helpful.
Snack Ideas During Stressful Times:
- Yogurt, fruit and granola
- Trail mix with mixed nuts and dried fruit
- Apple or banana with nut butter
- Vegetables (peppers, sugar snap peas, carrots) and hummus
- Rice cake and nut butter
Additional Ideas to Relieve Stress:
- Take a deep breath. Just five minutes of breathing exercises a day has been shown to improve mood and anxiety. To help regulate your breathing, practice box breathing – inhale for four counts, hold for four counts, exhale for four counts, and hold for four counts.
- Move your body. Going for a walk or jog can be meditative.
- Don’t suffer in silence. Talk about it, even if you feel like the problem can’t be solved. When you talk about the stressors, your body releases hormones that help reduce negative feelings associated with stress. If no one is available to talk, write it down.
- Prioritize your basic needs first, and then examine the next steps. Set small manageable goals.
- Keep a balanced schedule and avoid throwing all of your attention into managing the stressor. Being able to step away from a stressful project or situation is necessary to maintain a healthy balance.
- Be aware of irrational thoughts. If you are assuming the worst possible outcome, chances are there are other less extreme outcomes that could possibly happen. Sit down and break down the different scenarios. Or put the thought “on trial” by examining the evidence – not your feelings – for and against the thought.
As you prepare for exams or put the final touches on that end of year project, remember to take care of yourself. There are many simple things you can do to manage stress in a healthy way!
About the Author
Originally from Charlotte, Lucy received her undergraduate degree from the University of Mississippi and earned her Master’s in Public Health from the Gillings School of Public Health at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. While in graduate school, she completed her dietetic internship rotations in clinical nutrition, eating disorder treatment and public health. Lucy is a Registered Dietician at HopeWay Psychiatry & Associates and she is dedicated to working with clients of all ages to help individuals establish a positive relationship with food and their bodies. She believes that providing a safe and collaborative space allows for strong therapeutic relationships where clients have the best opportunity to focus on their individual concerns and goals.
Outside of work, Lucy enjoys spending time with family and friends, being outdoors, traveling and learning new things.
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