This article has direct application to me, the writer, as I am back in school at age 46, but truth be told, these five tips will absolutely help any person in school regardless of age or grade. Let me just begin by saying school is tough. Expectations are high and performance is always affected by stress. That being said, let’s get into what happens when we experience stress.
Everyone has heard of the fight or flight response. It is a part of our nervous system and in particular, when we need to call on strength, speed, or courage our sympathetic nervous system ramps us up to meet the challenge (or crisis). We might feel a tightness in the chest, a rush of energy caused by adrenaline, and the feeling known as butterflies in the stomach as the body shuts down non-essential functions to push all resources into survival systems. Typically, the body has a cool down system as well. The parasympathetic nervous system takes over once the challenge has been met (or crisis has been averted). The butterflies and tightness in the chest are eased with soothing endorphins, the body’s natural sedative. Blood pressure and heart rate drop back into their normal rates. In some cases, this cool down process doesn’t do enough to get our body back into its relaxed state. We can get stuck in stress and this is when stress becomes anxiety.
Imagine being so keyed up (ready for battle so to speak) and then being unable to calm down. School work suffers, relationships suffer, and the ability to process information for learning is short circuited. So what can we do to get the body out of stress induced fight or flight and back into a calm state of peace that enables learning?
Breathing affects physiology. It might sound cliché but taking a deep breath really helps. In fact, breathing is the most effective action a person can take immediately to calm the body. The trick is being aware that we are stressed or even in panic and then making a good choice without feeling weird or judged by others. The best technique is to sit up straight, shoulders back, head up with good posture and inhale deeply. Breathing slowly might be difficult at first, so take a few shallow breaths to start. Once you can take three deep breaths in and let them out slowly, your body will return to a calmer state. You might still feel tense. You might still feel stressed. Stick with me…this is just step one.
Stretching and moving is the second tip. We live in a sedentary society where we sit for hours at a time. We end up feeling tight in the neck and shoulders. From time to time our hips, knees and feet might ache or feel stiff from sitting. The body needs oxygen first (breathing is most important) but the body also needs proper circulation. As the hours pass without much movement our blood pools in our feet and legs. Our back and shoulders knot up. Our posture sags which prevents proper expansion of the diaphragm, so we tend to breathe shallowly. The mind can be fully active however, and our mental stress adds to physiological problems. This is why we must stand up, move around and stretch. The best technique is to excuse yourself if you are in public. Go outside for a few minutes. Walk down the hall if you can’t afford to go outside. As you walk, the blood will move and the muscles will loosen up a little, but you need to stretch. Reach up high and lean back a little to stretch the torso and upper extremities. Lean to the left and the right to exercise the oblique muscles. Bend at the waist and stretch the hamstrings and lower back. Squat down and hug your knees to your chest to stretch the thighs, gluts, and calf muscles. Try this every hour to stay loose. When paired with breathing exercises, stretching and movement significantly helps reduce stress and symptoms of anxiety.
The first two step help alleviate stress in the moment, but we can really do a lot more as preventative medicine. You are what you eat! A cheeseburger is fine on the fly, but your body really needs a nice balance of protein (meat), carbohydrates (bread/grains), and nutrient rich fruits and vegetables. We are a go, go, go nation. Sometimes it is hard to eat good food, but you can do it a little at a time. First, cut out soda. It is killing us. Diet is just as bad as non-diet soda. This is the most abused food we take in. Drink water. You don’t need the refined sugar or caffeine, no matter how bad you might think you need it (and by the way…it contributes to inflammation and sleep problems). Second, cut back or eliminate fast food. Cook at home when you can or eat a good meal at a restaurant. Keep it simple, eat right and feel better.
Sleep is good medicine. We are also a nation of night owls who get up early, work long hours, and then fail to get to bed at a reasonable time. There is no wonder we have stress. Add work, school, and extracurricular activities together and you end up getting less than seven hours of sleep each night. We make it worse by trying to “catch up” on the weekends. With anxiety, we find our minds simply do not shut down. Build a regular sleep habit. Pick a time to go to bed every night and a time to wake every morning. For me, 10 PM and 6AM work best. Nothing can be worse than trying to think at school (or work) and finding your brain is unfocused due to a lack of sleep. When we feel exhausted, we turn to caffeine and sugar to perk up, and that begins a cycle that is hard to break. In the end we perform poorly because we feel tired, irritable, and worn out.
The last tip is that ugly little word we tend to avoid at all costs…exercise. We need to work the body to avoid stress build up. The limbic system is tied directly to stress (and anxiety). Are you quick to anger? Do you find so many of the simple things you used to be good at are now just irritating you? Is your tolerance of others low? Guess what? You need to vent that pent up stress. You can exercise to unwind the tightness caused by the challenges of life. We ramp up (as mentioned in the beginning) when we are challenged. Even homework or a test can get us so spun up that we lose focus and feel overwhelmed. Exercise is the answer even if it is simply going for a brisk walk. Never forget that ANY exercise is better than no exercise. Take five minutes every hour to clear your head, stretch, breathe, and exercise (just few lunges or squats helps). Be creative. Best practice is to exercise 30 minutes every day but start small and build into a manageable routine.
So what is the alternative if we choose not to breathe, stretch, exercise, eat right, and sleep right? Well there is always medicine and therapy…but let’s not skip the simple, affordable solutions for those things unless you absolutely need them…even then, go back and do the basics I listed above. You really can make a difference with a few simple techniques. Start now and if you need more help, please call us for an appointment at