Stress, even the word can conjure up vivid images and feelings of butterflies in your stomach, sweaty palms and fuzzy thinking. Whilst too much stress will slow down your ability to study and retain information, not enough stress will see you lying in hammock in the sun instead of studying for that maths exam. How do you get a balance? Stress management is the answer.Let’s start by understanding a little more about stress. Stress is your body’s response to perceived threat. It is a response that is supposed to keep you safe from the threat by engaging energy to fight, look for escape routes down which to flee or shutting you down into freeze / or playing dead! You will have seen all these responses in animals under threat in the natural world. Lizards and even insects show the same stress responses and that lets us know that our stress response is very instinctual. It kicks in without us inviting it. But that doesn’t mean we can’t make it work for us!
When you are stressed you might notice your heart beating faster, find it hard to concentrate, be filled with worries, be jumpy, cranky, have headaches, be very hungry or not hungry at all. Everyone responds to stress slightly differently. It is important to work out your response so you can make a plan to manage it. If you don’t know, ask the people you live with!
What does the fight response look like? People who go into fight mode will say that they are moody when stressed, volatile, they shout more, they feel restless, they tap their feet or fingers and generally annoy people around them. They might get headaches and muscle aches from all the tension build up. Parents will feel like they have to “walk on eggshells” around teens with this response. Fighters will get their work done but they will need to grumble a lot along the way!
What does the flight response look like? People who go into flight mode will do anything to avoid the perceived threat (study). They will even clean their rooms, mind their baby sisters, develop a sudden interest in the fly on their window sill. Deep down, they know that they are not doing what they need to do and this makes them irritable, particularly if a parent or teacher points out that they are not getting their work done! These people make an art of procrastination!
What does the freeze response look like? People who go into freeze mode feel heavy and sleepy. They want to sleep all the time. Their muscles feel heavy and they have no energy. They tend to communicate in one word or less with those around them and tune out to their environment. The tiredness feels like a big fog in their head so that even when they try to study, they really can’t remember anything they have read. Focus is a big problem.
So what is going on in your body when you are stressed? Your hypothalamus, at the base of your brain, notices danger and sets of an alert. It sends a message to your adrenal gland which releases adrenalin and cortisol. Andrenalin elevates your heart rate, increases your blood pressure. Cortisol increases your blood sugar level giving you an energy boost. OK, that isn’t sounding so great, kind of like diabetes and high blood pressure at the same time! But imagine you need to get out of the way of a speeding car, or win an argument with your mom, these responses get your body ready for action!
Mild stress can hone your focus, help you remember details and give you a performance edge. Too much stress though can send you over the edge! Too much stress can come in the form of one big dose of something very scary or threatening (like hearing bad news about someone you love) OR long term low grade stress (like being in matric!). Either one can compromise your ability to perform well.
How can you bust stress? You have two battles – one is in your body and the other is in your mind! Have you ever noticed that when stress is winning, your thinking gets stinky? You imagine that teachers are out to get you (why else would they have 5 things due on the same day), you are sure your parents are going out of their way to make your life difficult, you start to tell yourself that there is no point, you can’t get it done, you are going to fail, you don’t even know where to start, people will laugh at you, you are a looser!!!! This negative messaging FEEDS the stress response, it makes the danger bigger so your body pumps more and more adrenaline and cortisol. Before you know it you have a hormone overdose and all your worst fears start to come true.
Just like your stress response is individual, finding the things that help you manage also unique to you. Here are some ideas:
1. Sleep – not enough sleep creates additional stress on your body. Make sure you get at least 8-9 hours/ night. Sleep is the time where your body repairs the physical damage done by excessive stress. Sleep is also the time where your brain sorts through the information from the day, letting go of things you don’t need to remember and ordering and filing away the things you do need to remember. Sleeping helps you study!
2. Music – listening to or playing music is a good stress reliever. Play whatever makes you happy. If you are using music for study though, make sure you choose music without words. Trying to read and remember your study notes with a very interesting back ground song playing creates stress. It is like trying to run two big programs on your computer at the same time. They will both go slowly! The best music to study to is classical and baroque music which has been proven to have a positive affect on brain activity.
3. Laugh – laughter calms down the stress response – after all, you can’t be in danger if you are laughing! Stress makes you take shallow breaths but laughter causes you take deep breaths. Stress makes your muscles tight but a good belly laugh shakes your muscles to jelly producing deep relaxation. Try to see the funny side of the situations in your life. Watch a funny movie, read a funny book. Playing with younger children or pets often brings opportunities for laughter.
4. Ask for help – A problem shared is a problem halved. Receiving help combats that stinky thinking that tells you that you are all alone and no one cares. Verbalizing the problem to another person helps you evaluate exactly how bad it is (probably not as bad as you thought) and also helps you develop strategies for overcoming it. Stress wants you to think you have to do everything on your own. It wants to isolate you. It tells you that you can’t trust anyone. Don’t listen!
5. Relax – Whatever works for you! Take a bath, lie in the sun, watch the clouds, breath deeply, smell the flowers, watch a movie, read a book, draw, sing, pat your dog, be in the moment and enjoy it. Mindfulness meditation helps you focus on the here and now – beginning with a focus on your breath and extending to the physical world around you. It takes you away from what has still to be done, worries about the future and replays of those bad moments and has been proven to reduce cortisol levels.
6. Exercise – Exercise is one of the best ways to burn up that extra energy that stress brings. People whose stress response makes them sleepy find that they feel more energized after exercise. Those who were fidgety and moody, feel more calm after exercise. How can it do both things? Exercise causes your body to release the feel good hormone – endorphin. Endorphin is the great balancer, returning your body back to neutral. 30 minutes/ day of exercise that increases your heart rate has long term benefits for your physical and mental health.
7. Time management – Good time management will mean that there is much less chance of stressful study situations arising. Click here if you haven’t read the time management blog yet.
A final word – stress management is not about the people around you behaving differently, your teachers not giving you so much work, your parents being more considerate, it is about you. Being able to manage yourself – no matter what the situation – is a skill for life. Start working on it!