Author: Christina Leggett, Psychologist.
Current research in Neuroscience has demonstrated how stress and anxiety can manifest in the brain and body, and how lifestyle factors can either increase or decrease stress in our lives. Therefore, we can be proactive about keeping our stress levels low if we address lifestyle factors which impact on how we feel during assessment and exam time.
Consider the below areas of your life. You could rate each lifestyle factor from 1-5, depending on how much attention and care you feel this factor needs from you at the moment.
Lifestyle factors include:
- Social/emotional relationships– feeling a sense of safety in the relationships in your life with family members, friends, partners, and other support network people such teachers, mentors or coaches.
- Sleep– Sleep and sleep hygiene play a huge role in mental health, maintain helpful memory processing, and depending of quality of sleep, can increase/decrease your productivity at school or uni. Sleep hygiene is all about how we prepare and wind down for sleep.
- Diet- We know that gut health and providing fuel for our brains, can decrease stress, and increase focus, productivity, and overall wellness.
- Exercise and physical movement– As anxiety is held in the body and the brain, it can be helpful to utilise strategies such as exercise to manage our stress.
- Technology use– Being mindful of technology use is an important process of anxiety management. Overuse of screens and ‘mindless’ technology use can lead to addictive behaviours and avoidant patterns of coping with stress. Zoning out on technology frequently impacts on our connections with others, increases the risk of depression, stress symptoms, anxiety, and dysfunctional behaviours.
- Environmental factors– Our external environment can impact on our stress levels and productivity. It is important to consider if our environment feels safe, uncluttered, and organised, rather than unsafe, choatic and disorganised. How does your current physical, social, and family environment feel?
Based on the above significance of lifestyle factors in stress management, below are twelve strategies for helping you to manage overwhelm:
1. Learn how to effectively manage your time.
There are usually two components to effective learning. One process is learning, memorising and understanding content. The second is organising the Self so that we can maximise learning and maximise memory processing. As students, we can tend to focus only on the first process. Someone can be great at learning and memorising information, but when it comes to exam time, stress and anxiety increase, and we can lose the ability to organise our time in a way that helps us to process, retain and apply the learned information. As a result, we can experience panic, procrastination, and a decrease in functioning.
When studying, it can benefit us to receive ongoing guidance and consistent feedback and ‘check-ins’ about how we organise ourselves, especially during exam and assessment time. We can do this by developing effective study timetables with our parents, teachers, and/or counsellor/psychologist. Time management needs to also include scheduling in rest, fun, and connection with others.
2. Set realistic deadlines and completion times.
Most schedules look better on paper than in practice. Therefore, you can trial and error your time table and be flexible with what needs to change, to avoid feeling disappointment and stress. It can feel really stressful to set expectations on yourself to get a certain amount of work done, but then not being able to for various reasons. Be mindful of when your brain seems to be more switched on. For example, some people feel more energised and focused in the mornings, so setting a study timetable with a morning-heavy, and an evening-light workload will be more realistic for those individuals. Another example is that some people work better when they’re “in the zone” and can be productive and do long periods of study without a break, while others might need regular breaks and shorter periods of study to feel as though their timetable is manageable. Experiment with what works best for your unique brain and body.
3. Get on top of your Sleep Hygiene.
We really underestimate the power of having a good sleep! If we experience poor sleep, we can feel sluggish and it is more difficult for our brains to let go of stress. A healthy sleep routine and having quality sleep greatly increases our ability to manage stress, improves memory, and enhances functioning and focus. Not only this, our mood is more stable and positive when we are sleeping well. Good sleep hygiene includes setting up a sleep space which feels uncluttered, peaceful and calming, and does not involve technology. Preparing for quality sleep also involves what we do during the day. If we are eating well (decreasing sugar and caffeine later in the day) and moving our bodies during the day, we are much more likely to have a more restful sleep that night.
4. Make sure your study environment feels safe and calm.
How do you feel when you sit down to study? What is your environment like? If we are in a chaotic physical space, or are exposed to conflict in social and family contexts, it can feel virtually impossible for us to focus. Make your study space organised, quiet and calm. Also consider where you can go to study where there is minimal distraction and disruption by other people, especially if there are people around who impact negatively on your mood.
5. Move your Body.
Movement and exercise releases endorphins and dopamine, neurotransmitters in our brain which helps us to feel motivated and well. It is a great way to manage stress and calm the nervous system. Try going to a yoga class, going for a walk or run, or heading to the gym before sitting down to study – you’ll find that your energy levels are higher, you’re more focused, and your motivation increases when you’ve been active.
6. Become aware of procrastinating or zoning out behaviours.
Procrastination is a way of avoiding discomfort when studying or preparing for exams. It serves the purpose of providing quick short-term relief rather than facing the discomfort (e.g., “I’ll eat a muffin, then I’ll sit down and start that assignment… first I’ll just check my instagram and then I’ll begin…”), however in the long-term, getting into habits of procrastination decreases productivity, which in turn increases anxiety and stress. Resisting the urge to procrastinate, and replacing it with completing at least one task before having a break, is a helpful way of breaking this pattern.
7. Do one task at a time instead of multitasking.
Multi-tasking increases overwhelm, decreases productivity, and impacts on our memory system. Focusing on one task at a time may take more time, however is a great way to manage stress and overwhelm, and produces more effective results. It is also a great way to practice mindfulness. If you can train your brain to focus just on what’s in front of you, you are less likely to experience overwhelm by simplifying things for yourself. Try making a list, and just tick off one thing at a time. Having a structured process in place like this can help you to feel like you are achieving tasks, no matter how small (number 1 on the list might be clearing your desk!), so that you’re not holding in your mind all the things you have to do at any given moment, which can feel stressful.
8. Connect with friends and family.
When we are stressed, the anxiety centre in our brains becomes activated. This means that we are less likely to feel social, to think clearly, and be productive. Allowing some pre-planned time in your study timetable to connect with family or friends helps to soothe anxiety in our brains which in turn activates the rational thinking parts of the brain. Then we are better equipped to study effectively.
9. Spend time in nature.
We know that nature has incredible effects on our nervous system and stress response. Spending time in our favourite places in nature increases motivation and decreases stress. Even simply stepping outside for a change of scenery from your desk can be helpful.
10. Realise that stress can be a normal reaction to exams and study.
Stress can release adrenaline, which can sometimes help to increase our productivity. Therefore, it is more realistic to manage stress levels rather than aiming to get rid of stress and discomfort altogether. Being able to sit with some levels of discomfort and stress is a realistic way to manage anxiety, and decrease procrastination. You can tell yourself that it is normal for your brain and body to feel this way when you have exams coming up.
12. Access Support
If you notice that stress is getting the better of you, ask for help from a teacher, friend, parent, or therapist. When we practice seeking support, it helps us to build resilience and develop a ‘tool box’ for effective stress management for the future – not just during exam time, but for any other stressful event that comes up in our lives.