I often compare the feeling of exam season with that one relative you always see around the holidays. You know the one: no matter how long you try to avoid them, you eventually have to say hi to them. Even when you think you’re mentally ready for the conversation, one unexpected question about your future sends you right over the edge. Unfortunately, both exams and uncomfortable relative interactions are just around the corner. But remember what the great Kelly Clarkson sang: what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.
Whether you’re in first year, a master’s student, or anything in between - everyone experiences an increased level of stress during exam season. It’s easy to lose yourself in the work and forget to focus on the other important aspects in your life. Personally, this year I started feeling more anxious about school more than I ever have before. When I wasn’t doing work, I felt a humongous pit in my chest. I prioritized work over everything; it became more important than sleeping, eating, exercising, and doing things for fun. I found myself in this continuous loop of waking up, going to the library for the full day, then back to sleep. It didn’t take long to realize that this stress was seeping into other aspects of my life and soon I became constantly overwhelmed with intense feelings of anxiety. With exam season right around the corner, I knew I had to switch up my routine, but didn’t know where to start.
I have been a mental health advocate for years, yet something I have always struggled with is the concept of self-care. Honestly, I was skeptical of it because I had no idea what it really was, or how to do it. There’s this misconception that self- care is exclusively sitting in a bathtub with a face mask and meditating to peaceful piano music. The reality is, self-care is whatever you need to make of it and it’s going to be so different for every person. What works for someone you are very close with could have no effect on you. So when practicing self-care, don’t focus on what you think should make you happy, but rather focus on what does make you happy.
During my self-care journey, I tried many different things until I found a routine that fit. Every single routine I tried, I learned things I liked and didn’t like about them. For myself, I knew that I didn’t want anything that would take a long time, I needed something consistent, and it needed to require absolutely no artistic ability. Most importantly, it had to be something that could fit with an uncertain exam schedule and help me reduce stress. If a self-care routine were a regular coffee, I would order a soy-milk caramel macchiato, except hold the caramel, add three and a quarter shots of expresso with two sprinkles of cinnamon – something incredibly specific and seemingly hard to execute.
In the end, I discovered that journaling every night before bed is the self-care routine that works best for me. I created a journal outline for myself to fill out every night, which includes writing five things that I enjoyed that day, two things I’m looking forward to in the week, and two things I’m looking forward to in the far future. I ended up really liking this format for a few reasons. Firstly, I can make the journal entry as long or as short as I want. I often end up writing for a total of five minutes, because I let myself write very casually in bullet points. It’s also something I can easily fit into my schedule and can do without exerting any physical or mental energy. However, what I love about this type of journaling the most, is that it makes me reflect on all of the positive things that happen in my day, even when that day may have seemed negative. It allows me to express and feel gratitude for my daily experiences and the people I spent time with. When the stress can seem all-consuming during exams, this can remind me of the small but important moments of positivity. Looking forward to things in the future also reminds me that times of stress are not permanent and that they will always pass. This self-care routine is a great way to relax without looking at a screen and reminds me of the other priorities in my life that are unrelated to school.
Overall, finding a self-care routine during exams can be as simple as taking 10 minutes a day, or even an entire day, to completely focus on yourself. Whether you need a dance break, a nice home-cooked meal, or a call to your therapist, self-care will be different for everyone. Finding this method of journaling took me a lot of trial and error; however, I’m so happy that I was consistent in finding what worked best for me. Finally, I encourage everyone to study hard this exam season but to take breaks when needed. Grades matter, but mental health always matters more.