Student health, part 3: coping with exam stress

Coping with exam stress 

by nutritionist Maxine Sheils BSc (Hons) 

It’s the time of year that comes around only too quickly; essays are due and exams are imminent, making the run-up to summer a stressful time indeed. But fear not, before the sleepless nights spent revising or worrying occur, make yourself a quick cup of tea and take this opportunity to arm yourself with all you need to know to support your stress levels during this otherwise stressful time of year.  

Understanding the ‘fight or flight’ response.

How often do we all say and hear “I’m stressed”, but what exactly does it mean to be ‘stressed’? Stress is a physiological state required to support survival. As humans, we have had to become extremely efficient at sensing danger; when danger might present in an obvious form like a wild animal or an aggressive human, for example, as soon as the body senses the danger, within milliseconds, the body produces hormones to enable the ‘fight or flight’ response, allowing you to either be ready to defend yourself, or to run away from that danger. Whilst many of these physical stressors may not appear on a day to day basis, we are now more acutely aware of emotional stressors such as exams, financial concerns, lack of sleep and so on. Regardless of the stressor, however, they trigger a similar effect in the body.

There are, actually, many benefits to the physiological effect stress has on the body. Historically, the body had to become efficient at responding to stressors in order to increase chances for survival. In terms of exams, the stress response increases blood flow to the brain, which will benefit you whilst studying. Whilst short-term stress, as with exams, can be beneficial, when we are exposed to stress long term, the body can become fatigued and negative side-effects may arise. It can be all too easy to go into panic mode when stress is sensed, but a few quick tricks will help support you through an otherwise stressful event. The message for you here is embrace the stress but be smart with it.  

Short-term stress involves the arousal of the sympathetic nervous system, leading to a stimulation of the adrenals to produce cortisol, which in turn increases the heart-rate and blood pressure to ensure efficient blood flow, and increases blood glucose levels, all of which are required for the ‘flight’ response. Whilst the sympathetic nervous system is stimulated, and with survival as the focus, the body reduces focus on other functions such as digestion and reproduction, as these are, for now, not an immediate priority. Whilst reproduction may not be a priority for you while studying for your exams, female students may notice alterations in their menstrual cycle and, with long-term stress a possibility, will need to support the body back to a balanced state.  

Balancing revision with recovery time

So what can you do to optimise and support the body through this important time? Firstly, become aware of how you are feeling. If you’re feeling focused, make the most of it and use this time to optimise your revision or complete your assignments. If you’re feeling tired, rest; your body needs to rest in order to recover and repair. If you start burning the candle at both ends, you’re probably going to end up burnt out pretty quickly. Many people notice that they have lowered immune function when they are tired, so the focus is on preventing this from happening as it may mean less revision can be achieved, and no one wants to feel ill for their exams. Whilst it may seem counter-productive, listen to your body in the first instance and allow yourself plenty of rest or short and regular breaks in order to keep up the hard work for as long as necessary.

Optimise breaks by getting outdoors; ideally, go for a walk somewhere green such as your local park, as being in nature can be a great stress reliever. If you find that you have excess energy, try turning your walk into a light run, as exercise can also help to relieve stress. Keep it simple though: a rigorous workout may exhaust the body, leaving you with less brain power to focus on your studies. 

Sleep is extremely important through times of stress as this is the optimal time for the body to relax and repair from the daily stressors; sleep also supports memory and learning, so avoid late-night revision sessions which may in fact be counterproductive. With stress hormones in circulation, and active brain cells, you may find it difficult to switch off and fall asleep easily. Creating a healthy sleep routine will help to calm both the mind and body to support a good night’s sleep. Try turning off all electronics an hour before bed, dimming the lights, playing some relaxing music and perhaps having a warm shower or a relaxing bath. Lavender room sprays or scented candles may also help increase the sleepy feeling. Once you’re in bed, if you struggle to fall sleep, try to resist the urge to open your phone or laptop and instead get out of bed and read a book for 30 minutes before returning to bed, with more chance of falling asleep this time. 

Fuel for your exams

Food fuels the body so it can function and through times of stress, you need to ensure you’re providing the correct fuel, as well as a large range of nutrients to support the body in optimal functioning. Therefore, ensure you are eating 3 healthy and balanced meals per day to support the body. A balanced meal contains a source of protein (chicken, turkey, eggs, quinoa, tofu, beans and pulses, beef and lamb), some root vegetables and/or whole grains as a source of carbohydrates, and a source of fat from oily fish, avocado, nuts and seeds, and oils such as olive or coconut, as well as lots of vegetables. Try to aim for around 7 vegetables per day and 2 fruits. As a general rule of thumb, if your plate contains lots of vibrant natural colours, you’re doing well.

The body has a higher protein requirement through times of stress, so ensure you are getting an adequate amount of protein with each meal. For a quick estimation to work out your protein requirements during stressful events, multiply your weight in kilograms by 1.4 to give your protein requirements in grams. If you are eating 3 meals per day, and a snack, try to roughly divide your protein requirement by 4 and consume this amount with each meal. 

B vitamins are also required to support the nervous system, with vitamin B6 working in conjunction with zinc and magnesium to support neurotransmitter production, and vitamin B5 required by the adrenals to produce stress hormones. To ensure an adequate supply of all 8 B vitamins, it is important to eat a variety of foods. Whilst red meat, poultry, fish and eggs are wonderful sources of some B vitamins, many vegetables, nuts, seeds, beans and lentils are excellent sources of others. Ensuring the diet is varied by consuming plant and animal sources of protein, as well as vegetables, will help support the body’s intake of these much-needed B vitamins. 

Turn on the ‘rest and digest’ mode

Magnesium is considered one of nature’s natural relaxants, and is often depleted during times of stress. Ensuring that you consume magnesium-rich foods will support the body through times of stress when magnesium requirements are higher, as well as helping to calm the nervous system. You can increase your magnesium intake by sprinkling seeds over salads and stir fries with lots of added dark green leafy vegetables (spinach is an excellent source of magnesium), snacking on cashews, or cooking up a five-bean chilli and serving it with quinoa or brown wholegrain rice as these are all excellent sources of magnesium. Cocoa is another excellent source of magnesium, offering the perfect excuse to snack on a couple of pieces of 70%+ dark chocolate with a handful of cashews mid-afternoon.

Now is also the perfect time to benefit from a tea break – not just because it’s the quintessentially British thing to do in times of stress, but because tea provides the amino acid L-theanine which has been shown to have a calming effect on the body. Whilst L-theanine is wonderful for calming the body, caffeine can have the opposite effect for some people, so try to limit your intake after mid-day to early afternoon so your sleep is not negatively affected.

For times of stress, we recommend: MindCare Balance which contains magnesium, L-theanine and all of the B vitamins, as well as a fish oil capsule to support the structure and function of those much needed brain cells. The addition of vitamin C and zinc will also support the immune system which can become compromised in times of stress.  

As you have read, when the body is stressed, it becomes less efficient at digesting your food so it’s not just the diet that’s important but how you eat is also key. Try eating small meals often, up to 5 per day, rather than 2 or 3 large meals which may put a burden on the digestive system. Breathing techniques can be used to help switch the body from being in the ’fight or flight’ sympathetic nervous system, to the ’rest and digest’ parasympathetic nervous system. There are many videos available on YouTube, such as this one focusing on yoga breathing techniques for anxiety. Even 10 deep breaths will help to calm the nervous system.  

People often worry more about things when they mean so much, and your exams and assignments should be important to you. If you do feel like you cannot cope with your workload, however, contact your student services to seek further support. Good luck with your studies.

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If you require more support, feel free to contact our approachable team of nutrition professionals who will be more than happy to support you further or point you in the right direction.

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