Another Cup of Coffee

How Bryn Mawr students handle the mind-crunching stress of finals week 

By Alex Hamel

It’s that time again — ashtrays are fuller, shiny Red Bull cans fill the recycling bins and students in sweatpants walk like zombies, their unrested eyes drooping.

Its finals week at Bryn Mawr College and the recipe for relaxation is nowhere to be found.

December 13th was the last day of classes, leaving a week for students to complete exams, final papers and daunting presentations. Though there are no classes, there is still the pressing demand of final work and the need to complete it all on time. It’s a major stress maker.

“I think it’s very unhealthy the way college students handle finals and the subsequent stress,” says Anne, 20, a junior. “The demand of finals is stressful enough, and then there is the stress about the damage we’re doing to our bodies. It’s a vicious cycle. Too much is expected in too short of a time.”

How do students handle the stress? To find out, a survey measuring the intensity of stress and what students do to cope was sent out to Bryn Mawr students. It had a 10 percent response rate, a substantial sample of the roughly 1,300 who attend the all-women Main Line college. (In exchange for their candor on the survey and in the following interviews, the names of students have been changed.)

The survey confirmed that stress is a major factor. Sixty percent of the respondents defined themselves as “moderately” stressed, while 40 percent describe stress during this period as “extreme.”

How do they handle it? Most — seven out of 10- use caffeine as a booster, while about two out of 10 use alcohol to help them relax.

Caffeine is available in many forms – in coffee, tea, soda, energy drinks and pills such as No-Doz. Eight out of 10 students get their caffeine through coffee.

“I generally use caffeine to prevent stress,” says Evelyn, 19, a sophomore. “For example, I might have a cup of coffee or a soda while I work on a paper in order to reward myself and keep myself alert.”

Caffeine stimulates the central nervous system. In even moderate doses, it can increase alertness and reduce fine motor coordination. But, ingesting a lot of caffeine can cause insomnia, headaches, nervousness and dizziness, according to a report by Washington University.

Amy, 21, a senior, replaces sleep with the stimulant. “I basically just toss aside sleep in lieu of Red Bull and coffee,” she said. “I know it’s bad, but what are you going to do, you know?”

Like Amy, 15 percent respondents also reported using energy drinks, which mix large doses of caffeine with sugar and other stimulants like guarana and taurine. These drinks provide a quick way to become awake and alert.

Drinks like Red Bull and Rockstar are able to bypass the FDA’s limit on caffeine by not calling themselves sodas. Rockstar contains about 250 milligrams of caffeine compared to the approximately 100 milligrams in a cup of coffee.

Are the ways students attempting to relieve their stress actually working in reverse? Are they using caffeine to stay awake in ways that are often at the expense of staying well-rested and healthy?

There are fans of healthier ways to manage their stress. About half of the students use exercise. However, during finals it is often hard to find time to exercise because of time constraints and the feeling that energy should be expended on schoolwork.

“I wish I exercised more because I think that would really help with my stress, but the busier and more stressed I get, the less I tend to exercise,” Evelyn said.

Research has shown that exercise not only makes you feel more energized but can improve your mental state. Exercise reduces levels of the body’s stress hormones, such as adrenaline and cortisol. It also aids in the production of endorphins, chemicals in the brain that serve as natural painkillers and elevate one’s mood.

“I know even a small amount of exercise would help, but it’s a time issue. I’m always crunched for time during finals. Why spent that time in the gym when I know I need to be researching?” said Sarah, 21, a senior in the beginning stages of her thesis.

“At one point this semester, I tried to go to the gym two or three times a week, but lately I have not been going at all, I’m so stressed and exercising just seems like another thing I’d have to schedule.”

“All the lack of exercise, eating poorly and lack of sleep only make you more stressed. And you can definitely feel how it takes a toll on your body,” Evelyn said.

Though it was not included in the survey, many respondents volunteered that they used binge eating as a way to cope.

Alexandra, a 19-year-old freshman, combats the stress of her first round of college finals with trips to Uncommon Grounds, the campus café.

The kitchen is open until 11 p.m. and is bustling during finals week, providing students with crunchy waffle fries, mozzarella sticks, quesadillas oozing with cheddar and cheeseburgers with a side of Ruffles potato chips.

“I think the lack of a regular schedule because classes are over leads a lot of people to do weird things with food and sleep and work,” she said. “I’ve been eating a lot of junk food — just greasy, unhealthy stuff. Especially the waffle fries at Uncommon Grounds and the mozzarella sticks with the marinara sauce. All that greasy stuff makes me feel better for a little bit. It’s comfort food.”

Alexandra is not the only student who binge eats to relieve her stress.

“I’m pretty sure my junk food habit, which gets bad when I’m stressed out, isn’t good for my health,” Evelyn said. “But Doritos are somehow really comforting when you have like, four papers to write. It also somehow makes me stay awake later to have food. But then, I’ve eaten all this crap and I sort of hate myself.”

Binge eating provides comfort that only lasts briefly. Afterwards, feelings of self-loathing and regret are common. It becomes a never-ending cycle: eating to feel relaxed, feeling even worse afterwards, and then turning back to food for a release of the negative emotions caused by the food in the first place.

Anne utilizes the opposite eating behavior and substitutes food with caffeine and very regulated eating. It allows her to feel a sense of control during times of stress.

“Food and stress definitely correlate,” she said. “I won’t eat much because I have so much caffeine in me but it’s nice to be able to feel that control when I’m swamped with schoolwork. This semester, I have lost weight in the final weeks. My BMI is getting pretty close to the unhealthily low level.”

Twenty percent of students say they use alcohol to reduce stress and some use it to sleep after consuming caffeine during the day.

“Caffeine is there for me in order to stay awake when I need to be, and alcohol to sleep when I absolutely need to sleep,” Rebecca, a 20-year-old junior, said.

Sarah uses alcohol late at night if she finds she can’t sleep.

“I’ll just have a glass of wine or two,” she said. “It definitely makes me groggy and able to fall asleep faster so I can get up and keep working.”

Anne often uses wine and vodka to handle her anxiety about school more than the stress associated with it.

“Some people ‘unwind’ with a drink after a day of stress, but I go into an anxiety-inducing situation having drunk alcoholic beverages to relax me after a stressful situation,” she said. “That’s not to say I don’t ‘unwind’ with it, but it’s more to hinder the problem in advance rather than soothe it afterward. I’m pretty functional when I drink, so I can go to class or write papers under the influence of alcohol. All free of anxiety.”

Four out of 10 students claimed that their friends and peers use either Adderall or other stimulants, marijuana and over-the-counter medications, such as DayQuil and NyQuil, to cope with stress.

Some students also volunteered that they physically harm themselves when under stress.

“I’ve noticed that I take to my fingers with a set of nail clippers in a way worse way when I’m stressed,” Allie, a 19-year-old sophomore said. “So I end up with too-short nails that didn’t need to be cut, or red and raw skin where I used to have a small hangnail and even in places where I didn’t have a hangnail and it hurts.”

Anne also finds herself in situations where hurting herself helps her find some sense of control over her intense feelings of stress.

She says she didn’t self-harm until she came to Bryn Mawr.

“I sometimes self-harm due to the stress of Bryn Mawr. I mean cutting or burning myself because I feel ashamed and overwhelmed by the amount of things I have to do and nervous about my academic situation. I’ll take a cigarette out on my inner arm, or use tiny razor blades in the shower. I know it sounds really messed-up,” she said. “I feel like my parents, professors, dean, and friends will give up on me and think I’m pathetic because of how behind I am in school, so that just makes me more mad at myself.”

According to the Cornell Research Program, self-harm is used to express feelings an individual cannot put into words, to release tension, feel in control, as a form of punishment and to distract from unwanted feelings.

Although cutting is one of the most common and well-documented forms of self-harm, over sixteen other forms of self-harm were documented in college populations in 2006. Multiple studies state that females are more likely to self-harm than males.

Though Evelyn’s friends don’t use alcohol or harm themselves to relax, she remains concerned with the ways in which they choose to handle the stress from finals – often without sleeping, running purely on caffeine and unhealthy foods.

She recalls a time during which her friends bought a six pack of Red Bull and brought it to the library, staying there studying into the early hours of the morning.

“It was seriously ridiculous,” she said. “They were okay with just not sleeping. I couldn’t do it. I’m not an all-nighter type person.”

Sarah notes that nicotine use is especially prevalent on campus during finals.

“I think it’s interesting that you didn’t ask about nicotine use as one of the main vices during finals,” she said. “I notice ashtrays are much fuller around finals time and many students smoke outside of the Lusty Cup at night. My friends smoke more when they’re trying to find motivation or inspiration for studying, papers, and projects. Smoking is seen as a reward as well as something I’ll even use to relax myself and even to procrastinate.”

Alexandra said she was worried about the possibility of addiction that all drugs, even caffeine, have on an individual. “Turning to alcohol or drugs, even if it’s just caffeine, can make you reliant on these substances. Addiction is always a possibility.”

Biology major, she recalls a study she read about for one of her classes.

“We read about how there have been cases of caffeine reducing the short-term memory of subjects,” she said. “I don’t think any of the drugs we rely on, as a society, on are necessarily good for us. Even if you say ‘it’s just caffeine,’ it’s still a drug.”

Alexandra believes that the ways her friends and peers cope with stress will not change unless a larger transformation took place.

“In order for any of this to change, American culture would have to become a society less focused on success and getting ahead to one more focused on health and mental well-being. That’s not likely to happen anytime soon,” she said.