Relax: Exams are coming

Positive psychology offers students tools to reduce stress and increase joy

| Author: Ari Harris

​Exams, final papers, group projects and presentations: The last couple of weeks of the semester can be stressful.

​Many Central Michigan University students also are juggling internships and part-time jobs, volunteer service, and participation in a variety of extracurricular activities. For some, this can play a role in increased anxiety and even depression.

​A 2018 report from the American College Health Association reported more than 60 percent of college students said they had experienced overwhelming anxiety in the past year, and more than 40 percent said they had difficulty functioning due to depression.

​Lynn Sweeney, who teaches positive psychology at CMU in her class PSY 200: The Psychology of Happiness, said she provides students tips and tools that can help them improve their outlook, increase happiness and manage stress.

​Here are some lessons Sweeney offered her students this semester:

Step away from the smartphone

Too much time spent on apps like Facebook and Twitter can make people feel bad about themselves, Sweeney said.

"Social media use can quickly detract from happiness," Sweeney said. "Research shows that in just one day on social media, a person can see a lifetime's worth of negative messages."

Instead, Sweeney encourages her students to put down their phones and engage in meaningful activities with family or friends. Anna Bulko, a freshman from Jackson, Michigan, said taking a week off from social media significantly improved her mood.

"The first few days were hard because I was used to picking up my phone whenever I got bored — it had become an impulse to check social media," Bulko said. "I started doing other things in that time, like taking a walk. It was freeing to not be worried about who was or wasn't liking my posts."

Limit multitasking

The Pomodoro technique is a time-management tool Sweeney teaches in her class. Instead of multitasking, students focus intently on one project — such as writing a paper — for a set amount of time and before taking a break to do something enjoyable.

"The greatest minds in the world, such as Albert Einstein and Thomas Edison, used this method, too," Sweeney said.

Give thanks

Sweeney asked her students to write down three things they were grateful for each day for a month. These gratitude journals were so popular, many students, including Bulko, continued the task long beyond the assignment.

"When you know you have to write down three positive things each night, you spend the day looking for them instead of looking for things to complain about. You're actually rewiring your brain to look for the good in every day," Bulko said.

Practice kindness

Sweeney asked all of her students to focus on being kind to others for a week through simple acts such as paying someone a sincere compliment, purchasing coffee for the person behind them in line or even sending an upbeat email.

Doing nice things for others builds a sense of great connection to the community, gives us a greater sense of our own meaning and purpose, and increases our own feelings of happiness and well-being, Sweeney said.

Many students began including things they did to help others in their gratitude journals and seemed to become more aware of the nice things others were doing for them, Sweeney said.

Take time to breathe

"Free time can be very hard to get as a student, but it's important to build in break times for stress release," Sweeney said.

Last semester during exam week, Bulko remembers feeling overwhelmed and stressed out as she tried to cram every minute full of last-minute studying. This semester, she's taking a different approach.

"I've already scheduled in blocks of time to do things like taking a walk or going for a run. I feel much less anxious already," she said.

Accentuate the positive

Sweeney became interested in positive psychology through her work with individuals with disabilities. She wanted to learn more about what causes people to give up and feel helpless and also what helps them build resiliency and feel successful.

"The way we look at ourselves, the world, situations and others strongly impacts our self-control, hopefulness, problem-solving and happiness. Positive psychology is not just about surviving, it is about thriving."

Although many factors, including culture and upbringing, can impact how students see themselves and the world around them, anyone can adjust their thinking to improve their lives. In the course of one semester, she has seen significant changes in the way her students report they are thinking and feeling.

"Students in any discipline can improve their outcomes and reach their highest potential if they understand how the mind works. When they develop an understanding of the science, they can apply it to their own lives," she said.

What is positive psychology?

Positive psychologist Martin Seligman defines positive psychology as "the scientific study of the strengths that enable individuals and communities to thrive. The field is founded on the belief that people want to lead meaningful and fulfilling lives; to cultivate what is best within themselves; and to enhance their experiences of love, work and play."

Take a look back at positive psychologist Daniel Lerner's visit to CMU earlier this year.

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