Stress and exams: how to relax before taking them.
With all those horrific exams looming and deadlines approaching quicker than you’d expect, it’s very important to counter the effects of your unforgiving endocrine system. This system is responsible for the release of hormones such as Cortisol and noradrenaline, which are the culprits of your ever increasing panic regarding the two hour exam you have to slave through in a couple of months. As it comes to a few hours before an exam, you’ll have an overload of adrenaline in the blood and Noradrenaline in your bodily tissue. This article will help you reduce these hormone levels by reducing your stress and levels of worry.
Here is the article structure:
- What is stress?
- What are the effects on my body in general?
- How can I reduce the effects and lower my stress?
So what is stress?
Stress, put simply, is the physical and psychological response to stressors (‘things’ that cause stress) in the external environment. For example, getting fired from your job is often a very stressful experience, and causes distress. However, stress isn’t always negative. Winning the lottery would also (despite some people’s opinion) be a stressful event, but a positive one – this causes eustress. Stress is not there just to spite us though, we experience it for a reason. Often, stress is a great defence for us, usually initiating the flight-or-flight response. This is a very important mechanism which defends us in situations which require lightning fast judgement. For example, if you are about to be destroyed by a bus, your body will experience a phenomenal level of stress in a matter of microseconds. Your fight or flight response will be kick started – do you stand and attempt to take the blow? Or do you dive or run out the way? In this situation, hopefully, your body would have the sense to “fly” and avoid a devastating blow.
Hans Selye came up with the “General Adaptation Syndrome” (GAS), which describe the stages involved with the body’s reaction to stress. So what are the stages?
- Alarm Reaction
- Resistance or adaptation
This is the initial “whoa” the body experiences when faced with a stressor. At this point about one thousand four hundred processes are initiated by the brain in a matter of milliseconds. Included in these processes is the mass secretion of many hormones into the blood system. One of the main hormones released is adrenaline, which is essential for the flight or fight response mentioned earlier. This allows you to make instant, almost unconscious decisions. The eyes will dilate in an attempt to receive as much information from the environment as possible. The heart beats faster to pump more blood to muscles; they will work better with more oxygen and essential nutrients provided by blood. Breathing rate increases to allow the exchange of gases in the lungs to occur at a more frequent rate. Less important functions are normally inhibited to save energy, such as salivation and digestion (saliva and digesting won’t protect you in a fight, unless you spit at the enemy… but just no.) If the stress is removed, the body will return to its normal state. If the stress remains, the next stage is entered.
Resistance or Adaptation
This is the body’s method of long term protection. Now that the immediate stress is no longer present, the body is brought back to a near normal state. Breathing, heart rate etc. are all restored to normal levels and the less important functions, like salivation, are resumed. However, hormones (Cortisol and Thyroxin in particular) are released into the blood which keeps the body at alert. The hormones increase Glucose release, which is converted to energy which will be needed to battle the stress. Therefore, blood sugar levels rise and so does blood pressure (and we all know the consequences of that!) The adrenal cortex releases Corticosteroids which are linked to the immune system and stress response. The overuse of the defence systems will eventually lead to the third stage.
During this stage, Glucose levels are heavily depleted and this leads to a severe lack of energy. Immunity levels are low due to the excess use of immunity neurones, which can lead to disease. The person experiencing stress will feel physically, emotionally and mentally drained. This can eventually lead to collapse and is a “bridge” to other mental illness, such as depression.
The effects on the body in general.
Time to reduce your stress, right in time for exams!
So how can you keep the levels of stress hormones down? You’ll be surprised at what some simple activities can do for your body. Here’s a list of some of the better techniques to reduce your stress:
- Be prepared. Revise! There’s nothing worse for your poor body than entering an exam completely unprepared. If you think you’ll fail because you haven’t learnt anything, you probably will. You’ll be surprised at how much less stressed you’ll feel if you’ve learnt the required material. It can be boring and tedious, but it’ll seriously calm you down when you realise you know everything you need to.
- “De clutter” your environment. Whether you believe it or not, your brain loves everything being neat. If you’re studying in a filthy dungeon (which, admittedly, most students do), then your brain will find it very hard to concentrate. If your room is tidy, well lit and nicely decorated it can make everything much more ‘refreshing’ and make your brain high on life – reducing stress. This will make revision simpler, and your brain will find it easier to cope.
- Sleep. A lot… I know! How amazing is that? You actually have an excuse to lounge around and rest! Obviously, don’t go to bed at 9pm and wake up at 6pm the following day, but make sure you obey a regular sleeping pattern. Aim to sleep for at least eight hours a night, and ten hours in the week prior to your exam(s). This will keep your brain and body energised, which is extremely important. A sure-fire way to keep stress levels high is being tired and groggy when you’re trying to study. This makes you frustrated and annoyed – never good when you’re already worried about exams.
- Eat properly. It may be tasty to sit there stuffing a greasy burger down your gullet whilst working, but it’s not healthy for you physically or psychologically. If you’re nice to your body, it will notice. You’ll feel perkier, fresh and healthy. The hormones released that make you feel like this are the opposite of the ones that stress you out. Therefore, it makes sense to eat well and flood your body with these good hormones, which will severely increase how relaxed you are.
- Exercise. As with eating, the feeling of being healthy will really reduce stress. Even just going for a walk and taking in some fresh air will really help. If you want something more active, hit the gym, go swimming, go for a run or play intense sports like squash or tennis.
- Buy some candles. No really. Candles stimulate the brain in a positive way and cause an increase in good chemical reactions. For a maximum relaxing effect, have a bath with lit candles around the edge.
- Talk to friends, family and teachers. Don’t become a social recluse and feel you have to stay in and study all the time. Be as social as possible. Get your friends to test your knowledge, or take some time off to see how your friends are feeling. You might feel better knowing you’re not the only person worried about their exams. You’re not alone; hundreds of people will be taking the same exam. Which leads nicely to my final suggestion:
- Relax a little, exams aren’t the end of the world! It may seem like your life depends on exams as they occur, but there’s always a solution if things don’t turn out how you’d hoped. Life isn’t exams; you can always re-take or take alternate routes to wherever you want to go. Just chill, enjoy life and have a laugh. Go out with some friends and have a little to drink. Let yourself go a little. Don’t take it overboard, or else you’ll just reverse all the healthy things you’ve been doing, but don’t hole up in your room and cry yourself to sleep.
I hope these tips help you. Just remember, we’ve all been there before. Us students are used to it by now, so just stay healthy and be prepared!