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End-of-term blues? Here’s why you’re feeling down — and how to deal with it

Concordia psychology professor Erin Barker provides insights into the negative emotions students can feel during exam season
November 20, 2019
By Nadia Kherif

"Being tuned into their stress and emotions can help students figure out the right balance." | Photo by Green Chameleon on Unsplash "Being tuned into their stress and emotions can help students figure out the right balance." | Photo: Green Chameleon

For most people, the beginning of December marks the start of the holiday season — usually a happy time of year. But for many university students, the last few weeks of the fall term are more closely associated with exams and stress.

To help students cope during this difficult period — and throughout the rest of the year, as well — Concordia has produced a report aimed at promoting health and well-being on campus.

Erin Barker, associate professor of psychology in Concordia’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences, published a study in the Journal of Youth & Adolescence that examines how and why the end of semester contribute to feelings of student stress and how they can get past them.

She says negative feelings can even be motivating, but we need to know how to harness them.

When are feelings of depression most acute among students? And why?

Erin Barker: Although there has been a lot of research on student depressive experiences, there hasn’t actually been a lot of research on when depression peaks across the academic year and that’s why we conducted our study.

We would expect depressive symptoms to peak towards the end of the semester when academic demands increase, and that is what we found.

In two different groups of students from two different universities (the University of Alberta and Concordia) we found that depressive symptoms increased from the start of the semester in September and peaked at the end of the semester in December and then fell again after that.

We didn’t measure symptoms every month though, just at the start and ends, so it would be interesting to have more measurement points to see when the rise starts, if symptoms grow gradually or accelerate at a certain point, maybe mid-semester.

What kinds of symptoms do students suffering from depression show?

EB: In terms of mood, depression is characterized by the presence of low mood and feeling sad or blue, but also the loss of positive mood or pleasure in things that usually bring pleasure. It can also be accompanied by physical symptoms, like changes in appetite and sleep, and fatigue. Anxiety also often accompanies the mood characteristics.

What kinds of effects can depression have on a student’s university education?

EB: There is a large body of research linking experiences of depression and elevated symptoms to poorer academic performance. Students who feel depressed may perform more poorly in their courses, take longer to finish their degrees, or even drop out because depression can interfere with one’s motivation and the energy one has to direct towards their studies.

What are some useful mechanisms or tools that help students decrease their stress levels during these difficult periods?

EB: In a different study we found that students who were generally happy across university had the highest academic performance, but they did especially well in semesters they also reported experiencing more negative mood than usual.

We think this is because negative emotions can be motivating if we see them as a sign that there’s a challenge in the environment that needs to be met. Students who are able to harness those negative feelings in the short-term to help them rise to their academic challenges, but who also are able to remain happy, are likely to reap the benefits of both mood states.

One way to think about it is finding the right balance. For example, if someone usually socializes with friends Friday and Saturday night, maybe the weekend before a big exam they only go out on Friday or instead study with friends.

Or, if someone exercises daily, they may skip a day to put in the extra effort for an exam or finish a paper on time. If you cut out the things that help maintain positive mood completely then the negative emotions may overwhelm you, but if you avoid the stress completely you may not do well in your courses.

Finding that balance can take time and trial and error to figure out. Being tuned into their stress and emotions can help students figure out what the right balance is for them.

X EXPLAINED: Watch Erin Barker’s 3-step stress-busting guide

Find out about mental health services available on campus.

Learn more about Concordia’s Department of Psychology.


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