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Tip of The Week

Coping with End of Semester Finals

By Aspasia Hotzoglou, Ph.D.

The end of the semester can be a time of great stress for you. By this point you may feel burnt out or overwhelmed by the amount of studying that needs to be completed. Your response to stress may be avoiding studying for exams or completing assignments that need to be submitted. Your avoidance gives you momentary relief (“I can do something else right now”) but your stress builds as deadlines approach.

Here are some tips to successfully get through this time in your semester.

Normalize and Label Your Anxiety

I bet if you were to poll other students in your class or dorm nearly everyone would report feeling stressed-out during this time. You are not alone. When you notice “what if” thoughts creeping up or a sense of dread, label what you are feeling. For example, “I am noticing that I am feeling anxious” or “I am noticing that I am feeling stressed about my exam next week.” Research has shown that labeling your emotional experience can help you better regulate your emotions.

Notice What You Are Saying to Yourself

Our thoughts have a big impact on how we feel and act throughout our day. If you think “I’ll never meet this deadline” you might feel more stressed. If you have that thought multiple times a day you might find it difficult to concentrate at all. Thinking about a situation differently can help change how you feel. For example “If I work on my assignment an hour a day I will be able to submit it on time.” Think about all the other assignments you did complete under stress. These thoughts may help you feel calmer and make it easier to get your work done.

Look Out For “Thinking Traps”

Thinking traps are unrealistic or overly negative ways of seeing things. It’s like wearing pink glasses and seeing your whole world in a different shade. Anxiety can result from thinking traps. The following are some common traps.

  • Fortune-telling: You predict things will turn out badly, when in reality you have no way of knowing the future. You might want to check thoughts that are predicting an outcome and take a moment to remind yourself that you are not a fortune teller!
  • Black and White Thinking: Have you ever noticed thoughts that you look at things in extremes? Things are either “good” or “bad”? You’ve either “fully succeeded” or “failed?” Most things in life call for a more “grey” explanation. For example, not having the time to review every reading assignment from the syllabus does not mean you can’t pass. Also, not knowing a question or two on an exam does not mean you’ve failed.
  • Labeling: Sometimes you will use one word, or a few words, to describe yourself fully. For example, “I’m not smart” or “I’m lazy”. Thinking this way is not helpful or fair to you. No one can be summed up in one word. Try reframing by describing a specific situation rather than your entire “self”. For example, “I am having trouble understanding this material at the present moment”.

Prepare Some Coping Statements

Coping statements are simple short sentences to help you cope with a stressful situation. It can be hard to come up with them during a stressful moment, which is why writing them down ahead of time can be an effective way to cope with stress. For example “I have felt stress during exam season before and gotten through”, “I know this will not last forever”, and “Take one task at a time”.

Making A Realistic Study Plan

Trying to study 12 hours a day 3 days before finals begin may sound like a good plan now, but take a moment to consider if that is realistic. Think back to previous semesters. Was cramming or studying overnight effective for you? Or did it increase your stress and anxiety? Consider starting to study at least 2 weeks in advance. Breaking up your studies in smaller amounts of time-- for example, 2-3 hours a day- will be easier to manage.


Take Care of Yourself

When you are stressed out taking care of yourself might be the last thing on your mind. However, engaging in self-care can help decrease your stress and help you study more effectively. Here are some specific tips to keep in mind.

  • Notice your eating habits and do your best to eat nutritious foods. Eating sugary or fatty snacks during late night study sessions can feel good in the moment but can interrupt your sleep. Try to keep some fruit, cut-up vegetables, and peanut butter handy for snacking.
  • Avoid pulling “over-nighters.” You will learn best when you are rested and alert. Make a lights-out rule starting at 11:30 PM. Plan to study earlier in the day. 
  • Do your best to exercise as a way to combat stress! Even a brisk 15-20 minute walk can be a mood booster. 
  • Reward yourself after study sessions, completed exams, or assignments. Small rewards such as watching an episode of your favorite show and meeting with a friend for coffee can motivate you to get through your studies and give you something positive to look forward to.

Talk to Your Therapist

A Cognitive Behavioral Therapist can help you identify thinking traps and use effective techniques to change your thinking and your habits. Talk with your therapist about developing a long-term plan to cope with your anxiety.

Aspasia Hotzolgou, Ph.D., Dr. Aspasia Hotzoglou is a Post-Doctoral Fellow, psychologist in training, at the American Institute for Cognitive Therapy. She is trained in cognitive behavioral therapies, specializing in working with individuals suffering from anxiety and mood disorders, trauma, and anger related issues. Check us out at www.CognitiveTherapyNYC.com

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