It’s exam time and suddenly so many aspects of your life seem nearly impossible to deal with, right? This is because there are changes happening in your brain when you feel stressed which can cause you to feel unable to cope. Be assured there is a lot of good about having some stress, but long term stress is bad for you and it's important to get back in balance again.
Firstly, it helps to understand what is happening within you when you feel stressed. Stress is a biological and psychological response experienced on encountering a threat that we feel we do not we have the resources to deal with. This ‘threat’ may be things like exams, over-load of work, your children fighting, relationship breakup or something more immediate such as a dog trying to bite you. The brain and body decide from assessing the current situation, as well as from past experience, that you need extra ‘energy’ to be able to cope better. Note that ‘cope better’ originally meant ‘stay alive’ from an evolutionary perspective. So your brain gives signals to better prepare your body to run away or fight whatever was threatening you; let’s say a tiger was going to eat you. Today, you experience the same response to a threat but the threat is no longer a tiger but rather an exam. Your brain simply perceives that this exam is scary and holds a lot of power, so it helps you cope just the same way it would if your life was under threat from a tiger – you experience the ‘fight or flight’ response. You get the hormones - adrenaline and cortisol - released into your system. Adrenaline increases your heart rate, breathing and carbohydrate metabolism and prepares muscles for exertion (running away from or fighting the tiger). Cortisol has many functions but in terms of the imminent threat, it reduces inflammation in the body, which helps if you’ve just had to fight or run away from a tiger, chances are you’ll receive some bodily harm. However, when our mind and body responds to exam pressure in the same way as a tiger, we get filled with adrenaline and cortisol which prime us for fast action, not sitting at an exam! The part of the brain responsible for triggering the fight and flight response is called the amygdala which sits is in the limbic system of the brain. When the amygdala is fired up it puts us on heighten alert for all ‘threats’, not just the exam.
Have you ever noticed how overwhelmed you can begin to feel about all aspects of your life during exam time?
This is because your brain is hunting for everything that is wrong. Those friends that were being a bit unkind, now seem devastating and impossible to deal with. The job that is demanding but you were coping with, now feels overwhelming with even more grumpy customers than ever. The reality is that it’s not the job or the friends who are any different now, it’s the way you’re perceiving them that’s created the anxiety for you. Your brain is now a negativity hunting machine, only reinforcing that you’re unable to cope……and so you can’t cope……and so the spiral downward continues.
So how do your break this unhelpful cycle which all begun because of some old survival trigger that really isn’t serving you well today?
5 ways to switch your brain off ‘fight or flight’ mode and feel in control again
Firstly, we need to let our brain know that there isn’t a tiger trying to eat us, there’s only some exams to complete, that aren’t actually life threatening, so we can ‘turn down’ the amygdala. You do this by:
- Mindfulness Meditation - Do Mindfulness Meditation for 10 minutes each day. Take a moment to slow down and give your stressed and busy mind some respite. If you feel as if you can’t even spare 10 minutes to do this, then you need to do it the most! Read a previous blog on how to slow down.
- Hunt for the good stuff - When we’re in fight and flight mode our vision literally narrows to be sharply focused on what is wrong. Again, from an evolutionary perspective this was helpful to only focus on the approaching tiger to increase our chance of survival. It wasn’t going help if I started noticing the pretty flower when a tiger is about to pounce! For this reason, you will accidentally be alert for all the things that are wrong because your brain is on hyper-alert for that. In fact, Dr Barbara Fredrickson has shown that our actual peripheral vision is reduced while we feel stressed, to help us keep sharply looking at what is wrong. To shift that negativity bias, it helps to intentionally hunt for what is good right now as well. What are you grateful for? Food to eat, friends who hug you, clothes to wear, a good joke?? Stop and hunt for the things that are going well in your life…..they are there…..it’s just that your mind has stopped you noticing them. Noticing the good will help to take your brain out of fight and flight mode and back into balance again.
- Gain perspective - Get a better perspective for how little of your lifetime this period of exams really is. Is it only another month or four months? In the context of your lifetime this is such a small amount of time, and it’s only for a finite period. This will end. Focus on how close the end really is (relative to how long you still have to live) and get excited that you know it will end. This isn’t forever, it’s just for now.
- Exercise - There it is…..you know it….but there just isn’t time any more, is there? Yes, there actually is. Make exercise a priority and notice the stress diminish immediately. Remember the origins of the ‘fight or flight’ response are to give you adrenaline so your muscles work faster and stronger. If you exercise you literally burn up lots of that excess adrenaline that is sitting negatively in your system. Plus you will produce endorphins which are a good feel chemical. These endorphins interact with the receptors in your brain to trigger a positive feeling in the body, similar to that of morphine! Why wouldn’t you want more of that good stuff?
- Get more sleep - OK….you know this one MUST be mentioned too…..you need more sleep. But how can you sleep when you feel so stressed and your mind won’t stop? Try these:
- Mindfulness meditation (as per above)
- Avoid artificial light one hour before bedtime (computer screen or smart phone)
- No TV in bedroom
- Avoid coffee in afternoon/evening
- Avoid large meals before bedtime
- Keep routine for bed time and rising. Go to bed and get up at the same time every day, even on weekends and days off. Being consistent reinforces your body's sleep-wake cycle and helps promote better sleep at night.
- If you don't fall asleep within about 15 minutes, get up and do something relaxing. Go back to bed when you're tired.
- Take a warm bath
There is a famous Native American story that simplifies all of the above into one tale:
One evening, an old Cherokee tells his grandson that inside all people a battle goes on between two wolves. One wolf is negativity: anger, sadness, stress, contempt, disgust, fear, embarrassment, guilt, shame and hate. The other is positivity: joy gratitude, serenity, interest, hope, pride, amusement, inspiration, awe and above all, love.
The grandson thinks about this for a minute, then asks his grandfather, "Well, which wolf wins?"
The grandfather replies, "The one you feed."
So whether it’s exams causing your stress or anything else, you do have the ability to reduce it down and feel more calmly in control again by using these steps.
And, as always, if you feel you’d benefit from a helping hand to cope, then book here to come and see me, I’d love to help.