…And no I don’t mean protect yourself from a nuclear bomb, a terrorist attack or even a zombie apocalypse (although all such things seem to be becoming a closer and closer threat!) If you want advice on the latter I suggest buying ‘SAS Survival Guide: How to Survive in the Wild, on Land or Sea (Collins Gem)’ which totals at roughly £5 from Amazon, or other similar stockists. It’s a brilliant guide and could well inform my next article, but with focus to the here and now; this article is instead focused on something far closer in scale to our everyday lives - how to survive the stress of exams.
Now, many of you will know and will have no doubt read hundreds, if not thousands, of articles focusing on ‘dealing with stress’ ‘not letting stress overtake your life’ ‘how to fight and combat stress’ etc etc all which are much the same and to be fair, most people know how to deal with stress by the time you are taking GCSE’s or A Levels; afterall no one is living a perfect, hassle free. A latest survey conducted by NeuroBliss saw results that surveyed more than 1,200 Americans aged 18 and older, where 76% of Americans said they spend at least half their day-to-day life stressed out, and only 9% are happy during their average workday.Yet I thought with approaching deadlines for coursework (IB’ers I’m looking at you!) looming exams for the GCSE’ers and A Level’ers alike, what could be more perfect than yet another article which aims to put a few minds and hearts at ease through a short and sweet, painless method of stress free reduction.
Firstly, stress - what is it? The dictionary definition of stress is a specific response by the body to a stimulus, as fear or pain, that disturbs or interferes with the normal physiological equilibrium of an organism. To cut a long story short, the physiological and psychological process of stress is one which can interfere with your every day life by making you more susceptible to worry and doubt your own decisions. This obviously is not ideal when you are placed in an environment which needs a confident and articulate attitude; such as that of exam time. Stress effects people in all different ways and can manifest itself in an entirety of situations. People can eat less; eat more; turn to alcohol to combat their inhibitions; become reclusive or try and fight it completely by throwing in the towel and attempting not to care at all. The problem with stress is that it is something that everyone will face thousands of times in their life, even if you are not someone who usually gets affected by it, there will most probably be one time when you need something to go well, and panic about making it right. It is thus important that we try and target it early so that later on in life we have an easy remedy to feel good again. So, with that in mind, here are my top tips on how to stay as calm as possible in the run up to the summer, as well as being the most prepared.
1) Clean your diet. It sounds cheesy. It sounds stereotypical. But honestly if you swap the box of Maltesers and Creme Eggs by the side of your desk for something slightly more vitamin friendly, you’ll feel so much better by the end of the day. So many people slave away at their desks in the run up to exams (and I am no stranger to this myself) which can leave you feeling fat and slobbish. Thus often you stress about trivialities, like how you’re going to feel by the time it gets to summer which only adds to the original stress of the actual exams you have to sit before you get there! If you kick out the rubbish, you’ll only have one less thing to think about plus superfoods, such as apples, avocados or even olives for example, only get that brain spurring on faster which helps with memory reception too. You kill two birds with one stone.
2. While we’re on the health grind, try and do a little exercise every day too. It doesn't have to be much, you don't have to run a marathon or cycle a triathlon but helping take the dog out or swinging the mower around the lawn, gets the heart racing just a little bit and really does clear the mind, leaving you much more receptive to learn more as well. Studies have shown that exercise can in fact improve your academic performance. To condense a complicated process; exercise stimulates the production of Brain Derived Neurotrophic Factor, which increases learning by stimulating neurone growth. It also improves stem cell production in the hippocampus, which in turn enhances memory. Plus, no one ever felt worst off after coming back from a leisurely stroll so give it a go and I promise you it will clear the head ready to face whatever is coming.
3. Take time out. Don’t spend all your time with the books, however tempting it might seem. Constantly struggling through when your mind is dalliancing on a completely different subject is not successful revision. Far better to take an hour to yourself, fill it with whatever you love to do and return feeling more refreshed and ready to begin again. Take time to see your friends, go out, hit the town or even read a book that ISN’T on the recommended assigned book list. Seriously take some time out for yourself and you’ll find your sessions far more productive so that stress becomes a dear friend rather than a hated foe.
4. Shower. Cleanliness remains very important throughout the stressful times. A simple shower or bath will wash away (physically if not mentally) any signs of debris that stress has caused, leaving you if not feeling temporarily better…definitely smelling it! Cold showers are great for clearing the head if you can stand them whilst a hot bath can soothe aching muscles from sitting all day in a chair.
5. Sleep! It seems so obvious and yet it is something that almost goes out of the window when exams are approaching and you are about as stressed as you have ever been in your entire life. A perfect optimum for sleep is 8-10 hours - less than that and the brain wont be able to focus as you’ll be sleep deprived but more than that and you can start to lose perception or feel overtly drowsy throughout the day. In periods of really acute stress, try and go to bed at a reasonable hour so you can wake up earlier to begin the day. If theres one thing I’ve found is that most things look better on a clear head and about everything looks worst on a tired one, so grab some sleep and hopefully even the worst situation will look more optimistic than first thought.
So with the more obvious examples now explored, how about the slightly more strange ways that you can avoid getting too stressed in the run up to summer.
Wear a rubber band around your wrist. This is definitely one of the most weird strategies I’ve ever heard of but apparently you can social condition yourself to becoming less perceptible to stress by simply flicking the band everytime you feel yourself tensing up. Eventually, you will theoretically associate feelings of stress with a pinch, making you subconsciously try to avoid the feeling. Some people might say this one is a stretch (pun intended), but it has a solid rationale behind it. Psychologist developed operant conditioning by first testing the theory on rats; he would place a rat in a box, and if the rat touched one button he would be rewarded and if he touched the other he would be punished. Overtime the rat learnt to touch one button to receive the treat over touching the other button and getting a punishment. In this instance of reducing stress via a rubber band snatch, punishment is used instead of reinforcement, so the idea is that we withdraw from a behavior or emotion in order to avoid an unpleasant stimulus.
Up the intake of OJ. That’s right, apparently two glasses of Orange juice a day are chemical stress reducers by lowering levels of stress hormones, such as cortisol. I guess you could start saying ‘orange you glad you’re not stressed anymore…?’
Think about investing in some chewing gym next time you’re in the shops. Although sometimes controversial, chewing gum has repeatedly been seen to have stress reducing effects; in fact in a 2008 conducted by Andrew Scholey, Ph.d, participants who regularly chewed gum demonstrated lower levels of anxiety, increased alertness, reduced stress and improvement with multi-tasking.
Make oatmeal your new best friend. Although every one knows its not exactly bad for you in any way, the exact benefits of some of these super foods can sometimes be hard to find. Well here they are: The magnesium and potassium in the breakfast snack can actually lower blood pressure, making you feel more relaxed and on top of that, regular oatmeal consumption can boost your serotonin levels, making you generally just a happier, more chilled out person!
So with that all said, I wish everyone the best of luck in whatever stressful, or rather now hopefully not as stressful, pursuit they wish to endeavour and at the end of the day, as a wise caribbean man once told me, remember…we are all too blessed, to be stressed.