What do the exam season and Christmas have in common? Maybe getting annoying songs stuck in your head, the forced smiles when your auntie starts her interrogation with “So how is your life?” or overcrowded public spaces (hint UB)? I don’t know about you, but as exams are approaching my agenda somewhat looks like the one of the Grinch:
4:00 wallow in self-pity, 4:30 stare into the abyss; 7:00, wrestle with my self-loathing; 9:00 stare at the ceiling and slip slowly into madness.
The bottom line here is that my stress-coping strategies for exam and Christmas-season will turn me into a green furry monster sooner or later. Since green does not match my eye color, let’s explore three healthier options to prevent this transformation.
Bad news first: sometimes certain life events are out of your control. Even the most excessive rants about a very difficult course, lecturer or laboratory partner won’t change the fact that, well, shit happens. The good news is that it is actually in your control how you deal with those day to day inconveniences. Humans (and rats) rely on specific brain regions that respond to rewards and punishment. Naturally, we are trying to boost the likelihood of experiences that make us feel good and try to minimize occurrences that make us feel bad. Pretty self-explanatory, but how can we apply this to stress during the exam period?
You are sitting in front of your course materials and for hours on end, you are breaking your head over a peculiarly hard assignment. You could;
a. read more about this specific topic and go over all the required readings
b. get up, call a friend and set a specific time when to return to your assignment
Most people think that option b. falls into a passive coping strategy, which promotes your stress level. After all, you are avoiding your task, right? Wrong. Your “emotional regulation system aka amygdala” is superior to your “logical-operating system aka medial prefrontal cortex”. Basically, our brain is wired to respond strongly to emotions, this includes being at the edge before an upcoming exam. The system governing this emotional response oftentimes overrules other parts of the brain that are involved in finding productive solutions. So choosing to dwell on the problem and gradually getting more and more desperate instead of talking to a friend, leaves you with all the emotions and none of the solutions. The term “gripped with fear” is not an intervention by linguistic geniuses. In fact, it is a very real description of what is going on in your brain. So next time you plan to ditch your friends because you are too stressed take into account, that in terms of your emotional regulation, taking a break benefits you.
I can not tell you how many times I have encountered the SMART goals during my first year of university. Probably you could wake me up in the middle of the night and ask me about the meaning of this acronym. So here it goes; when thinking about your goals they should be Specific, Measureable, Attainable, Relevant and Time-based. In general, it can be a helpful strategy to note down your thoughts and goals on paper. This way you visualize your aspirations, plus you can keep track of your progress. Other reasons include; you finally have an excuse to use the full-color range of the markers you bought recently.
Paradoxically, your brain only makes up 2% of your body weight but at the same time uses up over 50% of your carbohydrate intake. Even more paradoxical: prolonged stress inhibits your digestive system, hence your appetite, restricting your mental fuel. So, where is your body winning its energy for your mental muscle? The first option is that your body extracts glucose from muscle or fat cells which in return triggers the release of stress hormones. Being hangry is very likely during exams. So just do yourself the favor and eat a chocolate bar from time to time. The second option of obtaining energy is cutting down on your brain’s mental capacity and functions, which is not the best option when sweating over complicated equations that require all your mental power. Time is limited during exams, I understand, nevertheless, taking care of your eating habits contributes to a better mood and concentration.
So while you are hopefully reaching out to your friends to have dinner together, I need to change. to my agenda, it is time for dinner with me and I really can not cancel that again.