Destress Fest punctures the pressure of final exams

The urgency of final exams is right there in the name. They are “final,” after all. Those high stakes can lead to high anxiety, but students who are feeling the pressure have lots of options for relief.

Students spent their time in massage chairs texting, reading, and listening to music, whatever helped them unwind during Destress Fest.
Texting, reading, listening to music, or simply vegging out were all popular activities while sitting in the massage chairs.

Destress Fest gives students a break from their studies with a daily roster of activities to lift their spirits in the week before finals (December 5-10). Several departments lent their skills to the effort across the Gorham, Portland, and Lewiston campuses, all coordinated by Student Engagement and Leadership.

An upcoming exam on Organic Chemistry was on Meghan Galante’s mind when she settled into a massage chair at the Abromson Community Education Center in Portland on Monday. “Everybody has tests and exams at the same time, and it’s a lot riding on your grade,” said Galante, a third-year Human Biology major. “It’s a great way to take your mind off of it and focus on other things.”

The chair also helped Galante loosen the tight muscles that come with being a member of the women’s soccer team. She can thank the Student Government Association for making the chairs available.

Student Engagement and Leadership arranged for massage chairs to be available during Destress Fest.
Massage chairs were made available by Student Engagement and Leadership.

The Department of Occupational Therapy continued to nurture that mind-body connection by hosting a workshop on Wednesday in the Abromson Center, where students could make their own stress balls.

The first step was to choose a rubber glove from a variety of color options, then fill it with either dried beans, rice, or flour, whichever texture was the most soothing. Once the gloves were tied off, they took their final form as a “hand to hold” for anyone who would benefit from a good squeeze to release their tension. Pre-made hands were also available for students who didn’t have time to make one themselves.

Occupational Therapy contributed to Destress Fest by letting students make their own "hand to hold" stress squeezer.
The Occupational Therapy program distributed several stress relievers at a table in the Abromson Center.

“Fall semester, even more so than spring, because there’s a lot colliding right now, and we are seeing that with our own students, as well. There’s sort of a palpable energy, a vibration, that comes with this,” said Dr. Susan Noyes, an associate professor of Occupational Therapy. “Even within our own classes we’ve done some intentional work with our students on keeping cool, staying in the moment.”

The hands-on aspect of the workshop was in keeping with the mission of the Lewiston-based Occupational Therapy program, which trains graduate students to help clients with physical challenges regain the ability to perform everyday tasks.

The "hand to hold" stress squeezers that Occupational Therapy provided during Destress Fest were made of rubber gloves filled with a choice of flour, rice, or dried beans.
“Hand to hold” stress squeezers were made to order with a choice of flour, rice, or dried beans as filler.

As welcome as stress balls and massage chairs can be to ease low-level tension, sometimes more intensive help is needed. That’s where University Health and Counseling Service comes in with its team of nine clinicians, including psychologists, licensed professional counselors, and social workers.

Dr. Liza Little, Director of Counseling Services, has seen a spike this fall in urgent calls for help, averaging about 10 per week. She is used to hearing from freshmen who struggle with their adjustment to life away from home for the first time, but that experience is also extending into the sophomore ranks.

Classes were largely conducted remotely last year to staunch the spread of COVID-19. With the resumption of in-person learning, many sophomores entered their second year with all of the freshman insecurities that come with being new to campus.

Final exams may be one burden too many for students who are already dealing with a new environment, a pandemic and the holiday rush. Little points to loss of sleep, chronic absence from class and an inability to concentrate as some of the warning signs that a student is reaching a breaking point.

“Sometimes that overwhelming feeling kind of paralyzes them, that it’s hard to break through it and get going with the paper and get going studying for the exam,” Little said. “It’s sort of this spiral, if I stay back in my room and I try to work on this, maybe I’ll get it.”

Students don’t need to deal with those feelings alone. They can reach the University Counseling Center by phone at (207) 780-4050. Slots for same-day appointments are left open at the Gorham and Portland offices for students in crisis. Support groups are also an option for ongoing stress management.

Mindfulness techniques have shown success in Little’s work to help students deal with anxious thoughts. She guides them in breathing exercises and meditation on comforting images to help them regain a sense of personal control. Self-care through good eating, sleep and exercise habits is also crucial.

The track at Costello Fitness Complex was open for Destress Fest to let students walk off their pent-up energy.
Anyone who wanted to walk off extra energy had access to the track at Costello Sports Complex.

The exercise component, in particular, was well-represented in the Destress Fest itinerary. The track at Costello Sports Complex in Gorham was open Friday morning as a warm place to walk or run. Livestreaming from the Sullivan Complex in Portland, Assistant Coordinator of Recreation and Fitness Niffy Allen hosted two sessions of her Zoom Power Hour for her followers online.

“Exercise improves your mood, gets blood circulating to the brain which, of course, can help with focus for all the studying of finals,” Allen said. “Try to get in at least 30 minutes of something active each day. If you’re struggling to focus for that that final, get up and move. Do some push-ups, jumping jacks, walk the halls, dance. Just move!”

Allen’s online classes aren’t limited to just the week of Destress Fest. They’re free to students although registration is required to get the Zoom link. Allen also encouraged students to explore the many athletic resources available year-round at the Sullivan and Costello facilities for their stress-relieving and overall health benefits.

A row of massage chairs in the Abromson Center helped students unwind during Destress Fest.
Massage chairs were set up in a high-traffic area between the skywalk and parking garage at the Abromson Center.

The wide range of activities offered by Destress Fest shows that relief can take many forms and the choice is a personal one. Grace Blackwell, a third-year Human Biology major, summed up her choice to spend a few minutes in the massage chair by saying, “There’s just a lot of studying to do for exams and everything, so I think it’s really important to just take a breather and destress for a while before you get back into it.”