Mary K. Holder from the School of Psychology provides tips for managing stress to keep your mind sharp during those final weeks of the semester. 

End-of-the-semester stress. If you feel like this stress is impacting your ability to think clearly and stay productive, you’re not imagining things.

“Chronic stress can be pretty nasty, especially for brain functioning,” said Mary K. Holder, academic professional in the School of Psychology. “We know that chronic stress is associated with difficulty concentrating and mind fog, higher reports of anxiety, depression, and other affective conditions like irritability.”

Sure, you can’t get rid of stress, but there are steps you can take to keep your mind sharp and finish the semester strong. Read on for five of Holder’s tips for managing stress to improve brain function.

  1. Take a walk. Walking and other physical exercise can help clear your mind. “There is evidence that even a 10-minute brisk walk can improve self-reported mood state,” Holder said. “Walking can lower blood pressure, which is elevated during a stressful experience, and is thought to release endorphins, a neurotransmitter associated with pleasure.”

  2. Learn “paced breathing.” According to Holder, the way we breathe can alter our brain. Deep, slower breathing leads us toward a “rest and digest” mode and reduces overarousal or anxiety. She suggests using a “paced breathing” method. “Paced breathing refers to the counting of the breath,” Holder said. “Inhale for a count of four; hold for a count of two; exhale for a count of four.”

  3. Phone a friend. Holder mentions that a brief conversation with a friend can provide emotional-based coping. “Basically, with emotional-based coping, we try to process the negative emotions that surround some stressful situation and then express them,” she said. “Emotional-based coping doesn’t reduce stress, but it may change our perception. So this could be venting to a friend not to fix the problem but just to express how it’s making us feel.”

  4. Bring nature to you. There’s evidence that spending time in nature reduces stress, but sometimes it’s tough to make time to get outside. If that’s the case, you can bring nature to you. Incorporating indoor plants or flowers into your home can improve perceived health ratings and self-reports of stress, Holder said. In a study published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, researchers found that, “Three minutes of observation and meditation of yellow or red flowers might have strong positive immediate impacts on individuals’ well-being. While flowers have a positive effect on people, the color of the flower impacts those positive effects as well. The yellow flowers, in particular, were most capable of improving the participants’ feelings of relaxation compared to the red and white flowers.”

  5. Sleep on it. Holder pointed out that, among other tactics, incorporating tips one through four into your day can reduce your stress to set you up for a successful night’s sleep. “It should take about 15 minutes from going to bed to falling asleep,” she said. “If it doesn’t take that long, it’s likely because we’re sleep deprived. If it takes longer, it may be good to get up and do something relaxing, like reading a book.” Holder added that sleep is important for strengthening memories and helping us forget unnecessary information. In a study published in Frontiers in Psychology, researchers state that when you learn something new that you want to commit to memory, you should review the contents shortly before you go to sleep to help absorb the material.