As final exams approach, tensions rise as students try to balance their already complex lives with studying. Knowing the effects of stress, and especially the difference between effective and ineffective coping mechanisms, is essential to handling the exam season in the most healthy and productive way possible. Dr. Judith Andersen, a health psychologist and an associate professor of psychology at UTM, provides valuable insight into how stress impacts the body and the mind, and how to use one’s physiology to not only optimize studying, but to train oneself to remain calm throughout the last few weeks of the semester.
Stress, at first glance, is both emotionally and mentally taxing. It is also present in various situations with “each part of that stress taking some of your resources.” These cases of acute stress, such as when waiting in a long line at Tim Hortons or missing the bus Shuttle Bus, can be usually managed with a healthy diet and enough sleep which restore one’s resources. However, as exam season is more demanding than day-to-day life, there is a higher level of recovering required to return to a regular functioning state. When restorative measures are not adequately satisfied, the exhaustion of the body’s resources become apparent. “When we start to get burned out, you may notice that you don’t have as much energy in the morning as you had before [even with a good night’s sleep.] Your night of sleep didn’t completely recover your reserves.” This depletion can significantly impact physical and mental health.
In small doses, the stress response is not harmful. However, the body’s reaction to stress is observable when acute exposure turns into chronic stress and the necessary recovery conditions are not met. The human stress response—more commonly known as the fight-or-flight response —is characterized by high cortisol levels, high blood pressure, and poor immune function. From an evolutionary perspective, these effects are necessary to enable an individual to run really fast or temporarily enhance their muscles to fight off a predator. When one remains in a state of stress, the stress responses begin to influence the growth and development of the body’s natural structure and defenses. Andersen describes the difference between the sympathetic nervous system and the parasympathetic nervous system: “Your parasympathetic system is that rest and digest—that’s when you’re sleeping, even when you’re relaxing, or just doing something that’s enjoyable and not arousing.” The parasympathetic state is essential to keeping your body in a healthy state. “It is in [the parasympathetic] state that your immune system works the best. You can digest things [and] you’re excreting growth hormone. All of those things [are] need[ed] to keep yourself healthy and build those long-term reserves.” If the sympathetic nervous system is constantly activated, the body does not get the chance to replenish itself and prepare for the next acute stress situation.
Towards the end of the fall semester, it seems as if many individuals are sick with the common cold or other viruses. While vaccinations are recommended, Andersen mentions that “immunization does not work as well if you’re highly stressed, because your immune system is already busy trying to deal with the stress.” At a microbiological level, the body “cannot make antibodies to this virus” because it’s busy trying to handle the acute stress you’re dealing with at the moment and also trying to recover from the built-up chronic stress. It is a good precautionary measure to get vaccinated before the tidal wave of exam season sweeps by so that the body does not have to handle with the added stressor of a virus.
Stress does not only negatively impact one’s immune system. It also drains mental resources. The stress response “is very autonomic and instinctual. It is kind of this brain stem process [and] not our higher order thinking,” Andersen describes. When responding to stress, the sympathetic state does not allow higher order thinking to take precedence over survival. In the case of an exam, when “you’re sitting down to think at a test, you’re going to have all these physical reactions, and your mind is not going to be focused.” This is problematic when one considers the immense amount of higher order thinking required at a university level.
To prevent and minimize one’s stress response, Andersen describes a technique she teaches to police and other emergency personnel who have been able to effectively reduce their stress response and reactivate their parasympathetic network during high stress situations. The simple technique is known as the ‘one breath reset.’
“You’re going to take a really deep breath, and hold it for just a second at the top of the breath. You’re going to exhale very slowly, but you’re pushing the breath out through pursed lips,” Andersen explains. The technique lowers heart rate and allows the body to optimize the oxygen being spread throughout the brain and body. The increase in oxygen flow “manual[ly] override[s] the stress response system” and as the body begins to calm down, the parasympathetic network reactivates and one can carry out regular brain functions again.
Another way to lower stress is to break up long sessions of studying with a quick cardiovascular workout such as a quick ten to twenty minute power walk or a jog for regular runners. If space is an issue, Andersen recommends doing jumping jacks. The one breath reset technique is optimal in cases of acute stress and when exercise is not an option such as when you first sit down at an exam and read the first few questions. Andersen warns that “you need to have learned the information in the first place, in order to recall it under stress.” This means breaking up studying into sessions throughout the week and avoiding cramming the last few hours before.
In terms of dealing with stress on a long-term basis, Andersen advises maintaining a healthy diet and a stable sleep schedule. She recommends avoiding eating foods that provide a temporary boost in energy such as sugar or caffeine since “you will crash, which distract[s] from your cognition. [Sugar and caffeine] create cravings in your brain and can make you more tired.” Instead, she recommends eating “fiber [which] breaks down the sugar evenly as it digests and give you sustained energy.” Fiber is found in vegetables, whole grains, and lentils. A proper diet ensures that the body has the essential resources it needs. In terms of sleep, “that is the time in which your body consolidates and encodes the information” that you’ve learned during the day. Without sleep, the body needs to use more resources to remain awake which prevents one from learning.
All in all, it is important to recognize the effects of stress to facilitate proper maintenance. Listening to your body and knowing what it needs and when it needs it will allow you to prepare and repair so that you are in the best shape to handle the upcoming exam season. When in doubt, step away from the notes, take a deep breath, perform a quick exercise, and then power through.