Do you get stressed about exams and assignments?
Do you stay up late studying but then get too tired to understand anything?
Do you tend to lock yourself up in your room and eat more junk food or skip meals when cramming?
Did you say yes to any of those questions? If so, read on as we’ve got some great tips for you.
When we get stressed and tired, all sorts of things happen inside our body. Our muscles tighten up and we tend to hunch over, especially when sitting at a computer. This means we can only take shallow breaths into the top of our lungs. Less oxygen gets pumped through our bloodstream to our brain and other organs, so they have less energy to work effectively.
Heightened stress levels also put our body into ‘fight or flight’ mode. Way back when we spent our days hunting and gathering, we needed to be constantly alert for potential dangers, like other animals wanting to have us for lunch. We needed to have the ability to instantly fill our bodies with high doses of adrenalin and cortisol, the two main hormones needed to give us a burst of energy and to help us think quickly.
However, we obviously don’t live in situations like that anymore. Yes, we sometimes do find ourselves in dangerous situations but it’s not the norm. ‘Fight or flight’ mode was never meant to be held over long periods in any case. We are also supposed to have periods of rest and relaxation so we can recuperate and build up our energy stores again. What happens when we are stressed for long periods (such as before exams) is that we get stuck in ‘fight or flight’ mode and we don’t switch off – sometimes for days, weeks or months – which can cause all sorts of nasty symptoms simply because we aren’t getting enough down time.
Some of the other effects of prolonged stress include:
- Changes in appetite. You might have big cravings for foods high in sugar or fast-burning carbs, such as hot chips or chocolate. These will give you a quick burst of energy but it won’t last long and you’ll feel tired again soon. Or, you might skip meals either because you are so stressed you feel nauseous or you are too busy to stop and eat.
- Changes in sleep patterns. If you don’t have enough time to study, you might be tempted to try and get by on only a few hours’ sleep. However, this will end up making you more tired and you’ll struggle to concentrate, which makes you more stressed! You could also find that your brain is so active late at night that it won’t shut up even when you do try to sleep so you might end up with insomnia.
- It affects your mood. Being tired and stressed can also make you very grumpy and a real pain to be around. It can also make you anxious and depressed which are no good for you, especially if they go on for a long time. (Although, sometimes a little bit of stress and anxiety can motivate you to perform better and get things done.)
There might not be a magic pill to help you learn everything instantly but there are things you can do to reduce your stress levels and make your studying much more effective. And your body holds many of the secrets. Want to know what they are?
Let’s start with the more obvious ones. Nutrition and exercise.
Good nutrition helps you by providing fuel for your brain and body to function at their best. Ensuring your diet includes all the major food groups and lots of different colours and textures is the best way to give your body a healthy mix of vitamins and minerals.
Some of the best foods to help boost your brain power include:
- Fish, nuts, krill, olive oil, and garlic. These contain omega 3 essential fatty acids which help with memory, focus, and mood regulation.
- Meat, fish, chicken, eggs, legumes (such as lentils and beans), and nuts. These are full of protein and iron. Protein is vital for cellular growth, including brain cells. Iron is needed to make red blood cells which carry oxygen throughout the body. Without enough iron, we can feel extremely tired and may struggle to concentrate.
- Apples, broccoli, cauliflower, spinach, and berries. All of these play a big part in keeping the nerve (neural) functions in the brain working properly. This includes helping transfer short-term memory into long-term memory.
For more useful information on nutrition, see our article Benefits of Good Nutrition and Meal Planning for Adolescents.
Exercise that requires coordination (such as tennis, football, or dancing) gets multiple areas of the brain firing at the same time. It has to process the vast amounts of information you receive in a split second, decide what to do with that information, and then send messages to many body parts to get moving in specific ways quickly.
A good cardio workout delivers a load of key hormones, including:
- Serotonin – known as the ‘feel good’ hormone.
- Dopamine – which helps with focus and learning.
- Norepinephrine – which influences attention, perception, and motivation.
High intensity workouts work especially well for the brain as they deliver a bigger dose of these hormones than regular workouts. Moderate to high-intensity strength training exercise also plays a role as it helps the brain to process information faster.
Exercise also helps to relieve muscle tension and provide sustained energy which means you’ll be able to sit and study for longer periods when you need to and you’ll be less likely to be cranky with those around you.
Great ways to get some exercise when you’re busy studying include:
- Going for a 20-minute walk. (Take the dog if you have one!)
- Doing some yoga or warm-up stretches.
- Having a short bike ride.
If you have more time, try to follow a weekly exercise program, such as one of our training programs, as these will give you many short-term and long-term health benefits.
Other ways you can use your body to help boost your brain power.
- Drink lots of water. When we are dehydrated, our muscles can become tight and tense which can add to stress levels. Drinking more water helps to keep them moving well. We often mistake thirst for hunger as the signals they send are similar. As a result, we often snack unnecessarily when what we really need is water. Avoid drinks high in sugar as these often play around with your energy levels, as we’ve discussed above.
- Learn relaxation techniques. This is one way to get your brain out of ‘flight or fight’ mode and allow it to rest and heal. Try lying on the floor with your arms beside you in a quiet and comfortable room then simply close your eyes and pay attention to your breathing. At first, your mind will be jumbled with thoughts but don’t focus on them. Feel the air passing in through your nose, through your lungs, and out through your mouth. Allow your muscles to relax and soften into the floor but try not to go to sleep. Staying like this for 10-15 minutes has a similar effect to a power nap. It ‘resets’ your brain and gives your body time to build up its energy stores so you’ll be able to get up and keep going, feeling refreshed.
- Study in different places: Sometimes all it takes to revitalise your brain is to change your studying environment. If it’s a nice day, take your books, tablet or laptop outside and absorb the fresh air and sunshine. If you can’t stay outside, you could move to another room or go to the local library. Or, you could stand up for a while, and try studying that way. That alone will help with your circulation, so it’s worth a shot.
Your mind and body work best when they are in harmony so treat them as a whole and you’ll get both working at their optimal capacity.
We wish you well with your studies and trust that you can achieve anything you set your mind to.