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Lions and Tigers and Finals, Oh My!: Keep Calm and Beat Contagious Stress

As the clock ticks down to the start of summer vacation, a big challenge looms for any high school student hoping to start enjoying vacation – finals. Final projects, final papers, final exams. All are guaranteed to cause a lot of stress and sometimes, that stress can be contagious.

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Saint Louis University researcher Tony Buchanan, Ph.D., knows a lot about stress. It’s what he and students in his lab study every day. Buchanan, an associate professor of psychology and co-director of SLU’s Neuroscience Program, and his undergraduate and graduate students examine how stress impacts decision-making and behavior.

While a person’s individual stress is caused by his or her own personal experiences, observing someone who’s frazzled by deadlines and end-of-semester trigonometry problems can set off stress responses in friends and family too, he said.

“The stress system is an ancient system that’s there to get us out of danger,” Buchanan explained. “But the system also reacts to a threat like not doing well on an exam the same way it responds to more serious threats.”

The body’s stress response, when continually triggered by the need to do well on a paper, to ace a history exam or to craft the perfect college admissions essay can take its toll physically, emotionally and socially. Research has shown that constantly being stressed out causes trouble sleeping, problems with remembering what assignment is due for which class, stomachaches and long-term health issues like high blood pressure or weight gain.

And while you may have all your papers ready and not be stressed yourself, being around other students feeling the pressure can set off your body’s own stress response. As for why your best friend’s stress might become yours, it’s likely a result of how human beings evolved, Buchanan says.

“If other people can sense stress in you, and can help you with that, that’s good,” he notes. “If they are picking up your stress and getting stressed out themselves, it isn’t always helpful.”

But there are other ways, Buchanan says, to keep yourself from getting caught in the stress bubble of friends and finals that’s all around you.

  • Be mindful about “stress-sharing.” It’s always a good idea to seek help and support as finals approach. But not all sharing is a good idea, particularly when your best friends may be stressing themselves. If necessary, sign off Facebook, tune out the texts and take a break from your social media accounts for a few hours or days so you can get away from the online stress bubble that your friends may unintentionally feed after the school bell’s rung for the day.
  • Try to change your thinking about a stressful situation. Instead of worrying about how hard memorizing dozens of French vocabulary words or body parts for Biology will be, think of it as a challenge that you can overcome. Reframing the situation as something you can beat may help you beat stress too.
  • Reflect on what’s really at stake with your exam or final project. You’ll take a lot of tests in your life and have to meet many deadlines. You may not be able to score a perfect “A” every time. That’s okay and taking a step back to get some perspective on finals may help you see that things aren’t stressful as they seem.

Remember that stress is the result of our experiences and our reaction to those experiences. Often our reaction is the only thing we have control over, so use the tips above to regain control over your stress. And good luck on finals!

Want to learn more about SLU’s research or majoring in psychology or neuroscience? Or, if you’re still undecided, take our ‘What’s Your Major?’ quiz to see what you should study when you become a Billiken.

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