Studying, family, work, projects, reports and life in general can all be quite stressful. At times, especially around deadlines and important events, stress can feel overwhelming and the desire to stay motivated and concentrated may wane a bit. But why is this?
What is stress?
A little bit of stress is a good thing. It keeps us motivated and energised. It keeps us moving forward. Pressure (such as deadlines) sets parameters for how we work and is often necessary for getting things done. But stress can occur when the pressure starts to become overwhelming; when too much physical or mental tension has been allowed to build up over a period of time.
Stress, at a physiological level, can cause things like muscle tension; stomach problems (IBS or diarrhea); changes in sleep patterns and eating habits, changes in heart rate, breathing difficulties, excessive sweating or even skin conditions like eczema or psoriasis.
At an emotional level, negative or thoughts or feelings may be apparent; you may feel disappointed in yourself; have increased emotional reactions; distance from others, lose confidence or motivation; feel anxious or worry constantly (i.e. have thoughts constantly swimming around in your head). You may feel unable to “switch off” or relax.
At a mental level, you may experience confusion, indecision, lack concentration and your memory could become affected, causing revision to become very difficult.
Stress itself is not an illness, but it does lead to 80% of all health problems if not managed correctly. Stress causes a surge of hormones in your body and activates the sympathetic nervous system– the system responsible for the “fight or flight” response.
Once the danger had passed your stress hormone levels will usually return to normal. However, if you’re constantly under stress, these hormones will remain in your body, leading to the symptoms of stress discussed above.
How does stress affect thinking ability?
We discussed how stress can impact us on a mental level, causing confusion and problems with memory and the retention of information. But why is this? Basically, it goes back to the sympathetic nervous system. When we are in real danger, the thinking brain (the cortex) goes offline and the emotional brain (the limbic system) takes charge. The last thing our brains want us doing in a situation that looks or feel threatening is to waste too much time thinking. For example, if you were walking down the high street and saw an angry looking lion coming towards you, you wouldn’t stop and think to yourself “I wonder how far way that lion is from me?” “I wonder which bit of me it will bite first?” No, you would just run. As fast as you could. Or, if you were wearing a lion tamer’s outfit and had a stick, you might try to engage with it. Whatever happens, your reactions would be quick. Your sympathetic nervous system would see to it that you had enough energy to run or fight.
So, it is no wonder that in moments of high stress your mind may go “blank” or you might find it difficult to concentrate or be motivated. If your brain and body are feeling under threat, your thinking brain may not be supporting you as much as you would like it to.
So, what can you do about stress? How can you manage it before it gets the best of you?
One easy way is to pay attention to your breathing. Breathing is something we do every second of every day without much conscious thought paid to it. But because breathing from the top of the chest simulates what we do when we are under threat (breathing in that way sends more oxygen to your muscles so that you can run more quickly), try bringing your breaths to deeper down into your abdomen. You might even sit quietly and put one hand on your chest and one on your belly to notice where the air is being taken from. Then, imagine moving your breaths around your body to give you a boost of calm energy. Imagine breathing into your hands and out of your feet. Then into your forehead and out of your solar plexus. Into your heart and out your stomach. Move the air around your body to create a relaxation response but also to clear your mind. If you take 5 minutes a day to breathe with intent (stop and focus on the breaths you in your body), you will begin to feel easier and easier day by day.
Exercise is also a fantastic stress buster. Not only does exercise help to release the “feel-good” chemicals in our brains, it can also lead to a clearer mind and help to improve concentration. It also leads to you feeling stronger and better about yourself, which can enhance overall feelings of wellbeing.
Talking to others can be helpful in managing stress. The saying goes – “a problem shared is a problem halved” and that is certainly true when it comes to feelings of stress and overwhelm. Do not be afraid to talk to others about what you are feeling, even if they are your peers. Chances are, they will have feelings similar to yours.
Work smarter – not harder. Use of good time management and prioritization skills can stop the feelings of burn-out. Working smarter means keeping a to-do-list with low, medium and high priority items on it and working through them to the best of your ability. Don’t feel disappointed if you do not get to everything on your list. Instead give yourself a pat on the back for a job well done and move the remaining items to the following day. Avoid judging or criticising yourself as this just leads to more stress. Also, keep a diary that lists your deadlines and recognise how much time you need in advance to complete the tasks by the deadlines. Avoid leaving everything to the last minute. That too causes unnecessary stress.
Mindfulness. Rather than worrying about what is coming up or beating yourself up for something that happened in the past, live more in the present moment. Studies have shown that bringing your mind into the present moment as often as possible can reduce stress levels, aid memory and concentration and stop worry in its tracks. One great way to practice mindfulness is to join a meditation group or to have some hypnotherapy sessions. But, just by taking a break; paying attention to your breathing and allowing any thoughts or feelings to come to the surface, without trying to fight them or push them down, is being mindful. Acceptance is the key – accepting yourself and your limitations, accepting your feelings and emotions, and recognizing there really isn’t such a thing as “negative” or “positive;” there just “is,” can be very a very powerful and profound experience.
Stress Management Society: http://www.stress.org.uk/What-is-stress.aspx
NHS site about stress: http://www.nhs.uk/Conditions/stress-anxiety-depression/Pages/understanding-stress.aspx
Mindfulness information and resources: http://bemindful.co.uk/