Study Strategies for Health Professsional Students

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Managing Stress

Strategies for Students in the Colleges of Applied Health Sciences, Dentistry, Medicine, Nursing, Pharmacy, and Public Health

Good Stress, Bad Stress
Take a look at your napping cat (or dog). That’s the picture of a stress-free life, and it’s probably not the life you aspire to. Stress is the engine behind your ambition; it’s what got you where you are today. Most of us perform at our best when we have a moderate amount of stress; it’s only when there’s too much stress that our bodies and minds begin to suffer.

Turning the Heat Up or Down
Your goal in managing your stress is to use stress to your benefit. That means monitoring your stress level and then either turning it up a notch or turning it down. If you’re slacking off at the start of the semester, increase your stress level by reminding yourself of the huge quantity of material you have to learn. Later on, pull back on your stress by using some of the strategies listed below.

Symptoms of Excessive Stress

  • Physical symptoms can include: headache, stomachache, insomnia, muscle tension, a loss or increase of appetite, irregular heart beats, etc.
  • Emotional/mental symptoms can include: feeling overwhelmed or defeated, being irritable, crying often, having poor concentration and memory, etc.
  • Some people seek an escape valve for excessive stress by turning to alcohol or drugs (or other harmful behavior).

A Word about Perfectionism
When you were an undergraduate, you may have walked into almost every exam feeling fully prepared. Accept the fact that this isn’t likely to happen again. If you try to learn everything, you will stress yourself out. Also, you will probably succumb to one of the following pitfalls: (1) you will end up perfectly prepared on some of the material and not at all prepared on other material or (2) you will be vaguely familiar with thousands of details but not have an in-depth, conceptual understanding of anything.

Be brave and accept the fact that you can’t learn everything! Focus on the most important material in each lecture and learn that in depth (to the point where you could teach it). Ask yourself what is likely to be on the exam and accept the fact that some of your guesses will be wrong (confer with other students and the professor to improve your guesses about what’s important). Always focus on concepts and do not just learn a list of isolated facts. In a professional program, there are simply too many facts to cram for.

Strategies for Reducing Excessive Stress Identify & Eliminate Some of the Stressors

  • You can’t eliminate the biggest stressors in your life (the exams coming up), but eliminating some of the smaller stressors can make is much easier to deal with the big issues. Think hard about the little stressors in your life and try to eliminate some of them.
  • For example, if your commute is adding to your stress, move closer to campus next semester. If a friend is calling too often, screen his/her calls. If your pet is making you feel guilty because you’re neglecting him/her, ask a family member to “adopt” the pet for the semester.
  • If you’re feeling guilty because you are not fulfilling your obligations to family, friends, or organizations, discuss this directly with the people involved. You might want to tell friends or organizations that you will be back in touch with them during semester break. Don’t try this with family! That said, you might have to pull back a bit on some of what you’ve done in the past. If you’re married or have kids, do try to reserve some time on the weekend to do something special with your family. (One single mother who was in nursing school made sure she did something fun with her kids every weekend. This helped the family maintain their close bonds. It also helped the mother keep the kids “on her side” during this period that was stressful for all of them. The children enjoyed the activity itself and they also liked having something to report to their classmates on Monday morning.)

Talk to Yourself

  • Put things in perspective by bringing things down to size and reminding yourself of the reality of your situation. For example, you might tell yourself, “I just have an exam coming up; there are people who were diagnosed with lung cancer today and I’m not one of them.”
  • If you received a low grade on an exam, remind yourself that most students who graduate from your program receive a low grade on an exam or two.
  • If you feel like you have way too much to learn and not enough time, tell yourself that everyone is in the same boat and you can’t learn everything (see Perfectionism).
  • Be a friend to yourself. Stop saying all those mean things you say to yourself but would never say to a friend.


  • Both laughing and crying can do wonders for taking the edge off your tension. Some people like to watch a good tear-jerker movie to de-stress; others prefer a comedy.
  • Surround yourself with funny people and try to laugh about your situation from time to time.
  • Laughing with your fellow sufferers (students in your class) can feel especially good.

Use Relaxation Techniques

  • A few minutes of slow, counted breathing can really make a difference. Inhale deeply to the count of 7 and then exhale to the count of 7. Repeat several times. (This sounds simple, but it really works.)
  • Relaxing music and recordings of guided relaxation can be great. (You can buy these at most bookstores.) If you have trouble sleeping, listen to one of these recordings at bedtime.
  • A massage can be a great way to relax your muscles.

Take Care of Your Body

  • Taking care of your body is not self-indulgent; it’s absolutely essential when you have a lot of stress (your body is more vulnerable to illness when you’re stressed). Therefore, when you’re tempted to short-change yourself on sleep or meals, remind yourself that if you come down with the flu because you’re not taking care of your body, you will miss several days of studying.
  • Take the time to exercise regularly. This relieves stress and also builds reserves of energy.
  • Eat nutritious meals.
  • Get enough sleep. Research indicates that your ability to concentrate, remember, and deal with stress are all compromised when you do not get enough sleep. Also, it doesn’t make any sense to stay up late studying when your concentration and productivity are at their lowest. (This does not hold true for those students who are truly nocturnal.) Some students punish themselves if they have an unproductive day by staying up late that night to study. This makes no sense! Your goal is to learn, not to feel virtuous, and you will be better able to learn when you are rested.
  • Avoid nicotine, excessive caffeine, and other stimulants.
  • Make an appointment at UIC’s Wellness Center (413-2120) to discuss stress management.

Have fun!
Make sure you take time to have a little fun each week. This doesn’t mean you can take a whole weekend off, and it doesn’t mean going out until 3:00 a.m. on Saturday night (if you do, you won’t be able to study well on Sunday). It does mean that having some fun is an important way to avoid stress overload.

Friends & Family to the Rescue

  • It can be a nice reality check to spend some time with people who aren’t enrolled in your academic program.
  • It can also feel good to commiserate with your classmates! Knowing you aren’t the only one who is stressed out or who did poorly on an exam can really help.
  • Talk to someone who thinks you’re smart and will make a great dentist or nurse or pharmacist or doctor or _____. A little unconditional support can feel great when you are overwhelmed.

First Aid for Crunch Time

  • Write up a list of everything you have to do within the next week or two. Next to each item, write an estimate of how long it will take to complete that task. (For example, you might write: 3 hrs to review 2 bio chem lectures.) Now, add up the total number of hours you have on your list and compare this number to the number of hours you have available to study during the upcoming week (s). Usually, you will find that you do in fact have enough time for everything. If your tally reveals that you don’t have enough time, you will have to make some hard choices and cut back on some of the items you listed.
  • While studying one topic, do not allow your mind to swirl with thoughts about all the other things you have to do. Remind yourself that you wrote everything on your list and you will get to each item in turn. Keep telling yourself, “One thing at a time. Right now I’m doing this.”

Reclaim Your Confidence

  • It’s not uncommon for students who once felt smart and capable to begin to question their abilities when they are in graduate or professional school. The ugly truth is that nearly everyone feels this way from time to time.
  • Don’t give your performance on a test the power to define you. An exam won’t tell you whether you’re the most (or least) brilliant student in your class. Your performance mostly depends on your prior education, your preparation for the exam, and your test-taking strategies.
  • Remind yourself that UIC’s Admissions office is not staffed by dim-witted people who admitted you out of the kindness of their hearts. They’re smart people and they admitted you because they know you have the ability to succeed.
  • Remind yourself of a time in the past when you handled twice as much work as you thought you could handle. You can do it again!

A Word about Stress Caused by UIC Bureaucracy
UIC is a big university and so the bureaucracy can be cumbersome and frustrating at times. Here are 2 suggestions fro UIC students for how to deal with that particular stressor:

  • Take a look at your tuition bill and remind yourself that UIC is cheaper than many other schools. Tell yourself that in exchange for that, you may have to put up with some frustration.
  • Make friends with UIC support staff. Often, support staff know the ropes and can be a tremendous help to you if you give them a chance. If you treat them with respect and consideration, they will probably go out of their way for you.

Chronic Stress or Stress Overload
If your stress never lets up or begins to feel truly overwhelming, seek professional help. Call the UIC Counseling Center at 996-3490 to inquire about setting up an appointment.


Written by Cecelia Downs
UIC’s Academic Center for Excellence

1200 W. Harrison, Chicago, IL 60607