Stress of Exams and Unplugging from Distractions

We are only a few weeks away from final exams. Many students are already getting jittery and nervous about how to study and prepare for all the different classes. Being a university student is an opportunity that not everyone is fortunate enough to experience. It is a chance to prepare oneself for the real world, make new friendships and ideally mature into a cultured human being. I mention the fortune and privilege that students can acknowledge to raise gratitude and look at education as a great opportunity, rather than a necessary burden to get a degree for a subsequent career. A college degree requires hard work, but finding passion in one’s field is what makes the journey even more worth it. Optimism and a positive outlook on education make finding your passion much more likely and also help in your everyday life.

Research has found that being optimistic as a first-year student significantly improves one’s overall quality of life, and that is critically important (Yovina & Asih, 2018). Research on positive psychology has also shown how positive emotions can actually enhance overall perception and sensations thus allowing for better cooperation among people and a better outlook on life. This can result in elevating one’s imagination to become more creative and having much more fulfilling relationships. Evolutionarily this makes sense, as most of humanity's achievements have come through cooperation and an optimistic outlook in building societies, which are conducive to self-growth and personal liberty for the noble goal of the perfection of mankind (let us hope) (Fredrickson, 2001). At UNYP, we have students from very diverse cultural backgrounds. Moving between cultures can create a level of acculturative stress or culture shock that is not to be underestimated. I come from an Italian-American background and am used to smiling at strangers and greeting people on the street, so moving into the Prague culture was not an easy transition! Luckily, there are good safety nets including student activities, and a chance to form expat communities to avoid social isolation. It is a good idea to get familiar with these services, and perhaps also to create social groups such as specific study groups or review groups where different types of learners bring their own experiences.

Aside from the affective influences on student life, it is also important to acknowledge the great amounts of distractions tempting students every day. Social networks and messaging apps like Facebook, Whatsapp and constant phone notifications can really shrink attention spans and hinder the learning experience. These too play on our propensity to be social creatures but they come at a great expense. To my delight, it is UNYP policy to not allow the use of smartphones in class, and although this may seem cruel and unusual, it is a unique way of appreciating real-life interactions and reconnecting to the real world. Today, social media sites like Facebook are surrounded by controversy due to their misuse of user data and very questionable ethical practices in general.

We can forget that we are not required to be connected at all times, and that there may be great benefits from unplugging from these networks. A systematic review on the use of Facebook found various mental health issues associated with its use including addiction, anxiety, depression, poor body image and eating disorders (Frost, 2017). Through social comparison theory, it makes sense that one's self-esteem may be lowered by looking at another's construed image created on social media or that the constant advertisements for beauty products may have certain negative impacts on body image. The addictive part of social media comes from inputs such as “likes” and other “stimuli” such as comments.  In my Ph.D. research, I have focused primarily on Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) symptoms in adulthood. This well-known disorder is characterized by inattention, impulsivity, hyperactivity and other symptoms that are not exactly ideal in a school or learning environment.  There are three presentations to this disorder, the ‘hyperactive impulsive’, the ‘inattentive’ and the best of both worlds, the ‘combined’ (American Psychiatric Association, 2013). Much is still being learned about this disorder, especially when adults have it, and there are many misconceptions about it. As the diagnosis has gone from a childhood disorder to a lifelong disorder since the release of the DSM-5 in 2013, there are more questions than answers as to how adult ADHD develops and what it looks like compared to the childhood version. From the literature, we are aware that the disorder is only carried over from childhood to later adolescence and adulthood about 50% of the time (Fayyad & Kessler, 2015). This means that the adults who develop it spontaneously in adulthood must have some other influences.

We conducted the first study in the Czech Republic to assess symptoms rather than diagnostic criteria, and our hypothesis was that we could learn more about adult ADHD through investigating individual's lifestyles as core aspects of the disorder, rather than the observable symptoms that are more classically looked for to diagnose children. In the literature on adult ADHD, many types of addictive behaviors are found in association with the disorder including social media addiction and compulsive smartphone use, even in extremely dangerous situations such as driving (Andreassen et al., 2016). In some cases, individuals with ADHD may simply be predisposed to certain addictive behaviors, but the real question for me is how much these distractions can actually cause ADHD symptoms, and how much they are driving poor outcomes in school and general lower quality of life. Can adult ADHD symptoms be created through constant social media use or constant distractions from video games and texts? The answer to this question is very likely ‘yes.’ Therefore, it is important for students to be aware of these factors while studying and trying to do their best in school. Even in terms of stress in the last month, an article in the Journal of Social Psychology found  that taking breaks from Facebook to be associated with lower levels of cortisol in the body (the stress hormone) and an overall better self-reported life satisfaction (Vanman, Baker & Tobin, 2018). During exams, it may be wise to take a break from social media and inform your family and friends that although you are non-respondent on the social network, you are most likely alive and well!

Now that spring is here, there is new energy in the air, and the weather makes optimism easier. There are many parks and beautiful places to explore in and around Prague, which can greatly help to recharge from the busy city life and from the normal stress of student life.

In my personal opinion, it is good to frame the student experience as a unique experience and a privilege. It can be a step forward into adulthood and into self-actualization. Becoming more knowledgeable does not make life easier, but it helps us to refine ourselves better through arts and schools of knowledge, which were reserved only for a very select few for the greater part of western history. A few moments of focused gratitude throughout the day are wise, and a good way of getting a different perspective before studying for an exam or preparing for a class!


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