Students studying together in the library
Story Student Success

Staying Healthy During Finals Season

Michelle Baik

As the semester winds down, take a minute to prioritize your physical, emotional and mental health.

Students studying together in the library

Studying with friends is one way to get emotional support as you prepare for final exams. Photo courtesy of Humboldt State


​When finals roll around every semester, it's a prime time for students to start feeling overwhelmed. Healthy meal choices, regular exercise and sleep are among the first things to go as you start cramming for exams and race to finish up research papers.

But a few simple changes can actually make it a lot easier to both manage the stress you're feeling now and power through these last weeks—helping to ensure you succeed in your classes.

Here, CSU professors offer their tips on how to stay healthy during the crunch time of finals:

Finals-Season.jpgGet Enough Quality Sleep

Students are notorious for skimping on shut-eye at any time. And by the end of the semester, you may be cutting back even more to get everything done and carve out more time for studying.

But according to a 2014 survey​ of first-year college students before the start of their first exam period, those that had better-quality sleep also did better academically.  

Carrie Aigner, Ph.D., assistant professor of psychology at Humboldt State University, offers some suggestions on how to get enough quality sleep: "Make sure to eliminate screen time before falling asleep. Don't drink caffeinated drinks close to bedtime. If your mind is busy or you are feeling anxious, try deep breathing or a brief mindfulness meditation practice to help you fall asleep." (More on that below.)​

Practice Relaxation Techniques

"Stress is often caused by unnecessary worry about something in the past or [in the] future," says Shannon Snapp, Ph.D., assistant professor of psychology at CSU Monterey Bay.

"Often, students make up a story [in their mind] about how bad finals might be, and therefore, they create more unnecessary stress about something that hasn't happened yet."

One of the best ways to counter an endless mental loop that just adds more tension is to practice techniques that help relax the mind and body.

"Try a mantra to help re-center your mind and calm your system… Simply breathing and taking a few minutes before a test and at the beginning and end of each day will help you refocus your attention to the present moment. It also gives students perspective and the opportunity to enjoy their final days of the semester," notes Dr. Snapp.

Glenn Brassington, Ph.D., professor of psychology at Sonoma State University, stresses the importance of actively practicing relaxation. "It's not just an attitude of relaxation; you have to train to get relaxed," he says.

"Practicing relaxation techniques helps you [stay relaxed] under higher levels of pressure… If the muscles are relaxed and heart rate is steady, the mind thinks everything is okay," he explains.

Similarly, practicing mindfulness can have similar effects, according to Sangwon Kim, Ph.D., assistant professor of psychology at Humboldt State. Mindfulness is the ability to be fully present and aware of what you're directly experiencing. Most of us need to practice doing it, especially through techniques such as meditation.​

Stay Active

Getting regular physical activity—which doesn't necessarily mean workouts at the gym, either—has a double benefit:  it reduces stress and improves your mood, both of which are important for marathon study sessions.​

"Research demonstrates that physical activity can enhance cognitive functioning, which could boost performance on exams," explains Dr. Aigner.

"If you are busy, finding time to get active for even 10 minutes can be beneficial."

Create a Study-Friendly Environment

Studying for finals in an environment that's busy or noisy—which can mean something as simple as having your phone close by—can negatively affect your ability to learn.

"Get rid of distractions. [Ask yourself,] what can you put in your environment that's uplifting and calming?" asks Dr. Brassington.

Seek Support

Lastly, don't isolate yourself during finals season. While some students do well by studying alone rather than in groups, it can be helpful to take breaks and touch base with family and friends.

"How many warm, nurturing exchanges are you having with other people? Get social support, even through a phone call," recommends Brassington.

These simple, quick interactions can be welcome reminders that you're not alone during a potentially stressful time. ​