College Students: How Your Heart Can Help You Ace Your Final Exams

04/15/2013 08:19 am ET | Updated Jun 15, 2013
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By Deborah Rozman

Going away to college is one of the most monumental transitions we can make in life. Leaving the home and family we know and love best, entering a new environment without our tried-and-true mentors to guide us, following a new schedule, sharing a dorm room with a stranger, final exams, peer pressure, balancing classes, homework, social life and often a job, living on a tight budget, pressure to get good grades, trying to get enough sleep and eat right and not gain the "freshman 15"... the potential stressors are sudden, abundant and relentless.

I have great compassion for college kids these days. All the normal stressors are there, but they also have to face the stress of uncertainty, of getting a job after they graduate in this economic climate, possibly living at home with their parents, the burden of student loans, and a rapidly-changing planet.

According to a 2009 Associated Press poll, 85 percent of college students surveyed reported feeling stressed daily. Worries about grades, schoolwork, money and relationships were the biggest issues. About 42 percent said they had felt depressed or hopeless several days during the previous two weeks. As a result, many are on medication for depression and anxiety.

A little bit of what some call "challenge stress" -- striving to do your best -- can make you sharper. But chronic stress without recovery depletes you. College students are often short on adequate sleep, which can harm memory recall and their ability to be present for tests. Anxiety about how well they'll do also shuts down cognitive functions so that they can't even access all the answers they've crammed for.

Often, college students respond to stressors by looking for quick fixes for their discomfort: going out for happy hour with friends, overdoing screen time, eating junk food, popping pills or skipping class. These can change the way they feel in the moment, but they don't change their habits or the inevitable wear and tear that accompany them. Learning to manage emotions when they experience stress, not just after the fact, is what gives people the ability to cope with and transform stress -- and improve academic performance.

At HeartMath, our research has shown that learning to put oneself into heart coherence -- an optimal state where mind, heart and emotions are operating in sync and balanced -- can do wonders for alleviating stress and preventing the long-term damage to the body and life that could ensue if left unchecked. Not only that, in coherence, our brains have higher cortical functioning and are more receptive to learning.

If you know a college student who is struggling with all the stressors they're facing at college, they will be relieved to know there are very effective tools and techniques that HeartMath can offer to help build their ability to manage themselves with more ease and control. We have The College De-Stress Handbook for college students, and we've certified hundreds of college counselors in heart coherence methods as well as our emWave2 coherence monitor.

As you prepare for final exams this year, try these tips:

  1. Practice good health habits year round, but especially for several weeks before final exams. Eat healthy, exercise and sleep 7-8 hours a night.
  2. Plan and commit to a study schedule.
  3. Review your notes right up until exam times, if possible.
  4. Practice HeartMath's adaptation of the Quick Coherence technique several times a day to shift your response and release stressful feelings in just a few minutes:

  5. Start with heart-focused breathing. Calm yourself and reduce a stress-producing reaction such as anxiousness over a test by imagining that you are breathing in and out of your heart area, or the center of your chest. Breathe in slowly and deeply for five seconds, and then exhale for five seconds.

    Next, activate a positive feeling, such as appreciation, caring or love for a special person or pet. You also could remember an enjoyable occasion or a special place that made you feel good.

Learning to release stress at this age will not only help you address what you face now, but help you set a new baseline for building resilience and a larger reservoir of capacity for future stressors as a young adult and beyond.

For more information about transforming stress at college, check out The College De-Stress Handbook, by HeartMath.

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For more on stress, click here.

debbie Deborah Rozman, Ph.D., is president and CEO of HeartMath LLC, located in Boulder Creek, Calif. HeartMath provides scientifically-validated and market-validated tools and technologies that activate the intelligence and power of the heart to dramatically reduce stress while empowering health, performance and behavioral change in individuals and organizations. HeartMath's award winning emWave® technologies monitor and provide real time feedback on heart rhythm (HRV) coherence levels, an important indicator of mental and emotional state. HeartMath also offers training and certification programs for organizations, health professionals and coaches, and a self-paced online personal development program called HeartMastery for individuals.

Dr. Rozman has been a psychologist in research and practice, entrepreneur and business executive for over 30 years. She was founding executive director of the Institute of HeartMath, and now serves on the Institute's Scientific Advisory Board and Global Coherence Initiative Steering Committee. She is co-author with HeartMath founder Doc Childre of the Transforming series of books (New Harbinger Publications): Transforming Anger, Transforming Stress, Transforming Anxiety and Transforming Depression. She is a key spokesperson on heart intelligence and the role of the heart in stress management, performance and wellness.