Stressed for success

It’s exam time!

[Cue Jaws theme, strobe lights, distant screaming]

Stress is the name of the game. Over in engineering they are trying to calculate it, the psych students are plowing into the subconscious trying to connect it to your mother, the humanities crew are arguing it’s just a social construct, while over in the visual arts precincts they’re just splattering paint everywhere and screaming.

… at least, I think it’s paint.

What if I told you that stress can be good for you?

UON Health and Welfare Advisor, Noel Gueco, explains about the ‘Peak Performance Window’.

“Everyone has a peak performance window. You, me, Olympic athletes all have one. Without  enough stress and pressure an athlete wouldn’t run their fastest time. The idea is that you stay in your personal window.”

How does this apply to students? Simply put, if you’re not a little stressed you aren’t going to perform at your peak.

Humans are hardwired for stress. That crippling, heart racing, sick in the gut feeling is preparing you for fight or flight.

Fight or Flight?

The stress response, or if you want to call it by its kinkier name hyperarousal, is designed to turn your body into an arse-kicking machine with the ability to get rapidly out of Dodge if the arse-kicking isn’t going so well.

The stress response literally jacks your system full of a chemical soup. Your pituitary gland serves up some corticotropin, while epinephrine and norepinephrine sluice out of your adrenal gland, meeting up with oestrogen, testosterone and cortisol. All this serves to shut off your digestion, accelerate your heart, lungs and circulation, constrict blood flow to now unnecessary parts of the body, max out your reflexes and liberate fat and sugar stores for easy access by the muscles.

This process also shuts down your tear ducts and makes your blood easier to clot, so you’re essentially a temporary Chuck Norris.

All this is great if you are scavenging for food outside your cave and hear a rustle in the bushes, or are Leonardo being savaged by a bear. But in 2017, sitting outside an exam room, it mostly makes you feel like you’re going to have a heart attack, a seizure, and vom at the same time.

Stress Good

What this anxiety response is doing, however, is making you temporarily superhuman. You get stronger, more agile, your senses heighten and you’re brain becomes super focused.

If you can harness and control this you are going to perform at your  best.

Stress Bad

The problem occurs when, instead of controlling your anxiety, your anxiety controls you.

According to Noel, ““A little bit of stress is ok. A lot of stress is not good. If you’re too stressed, you won’t return any information when you study.”

One damaging aspect of intense stress are the ‘automatic negative thoughts’. If your stress is out of control the rational part of your brain effectively shuts down and you automatically catastrophise everything. This is when the ‘I suck’, ‘I’m no good’, ‘I don’t belong here’ thoughts start to creep in.

Stress also impacts your immune system, Noel Explains “Stress causes the cortisol level in your body to go up, and as your cortisol level goes up, your immune level goes down.” If you spend a long period in a stressful situation you effectively dampen your ability to heal.

Stress also impacts your social life. Some people explode and some implode. Regardless of your personal Jekyll and Hyde routine, these outbursts (or inbursts if you’re like me and just crawl into a hole and wait for the darkness to come) alienate your friends and family and make everyone involved feel like garbage.

So, now that we know all this how do we cope?

Keep Your Thoughts in Order

This is where we engage in a little affirmative ‘self talk’. When those nasty, dark, Wormtail voices start whispering in your brain, banish them and replace them with something a bit more realistic. It may even help to yell ’STOP!’ and remind your brain who’s boss.

Be Realistic

Prioritise your commitments. It’s exam time, you probably missed a few lectures and readings and you’ve just handed in a whole bunch of major assignments. Your nerves are probably already pretty frazzled so don’t be ashamed to cancel some plans or turn down some offers if it gives you the space you need to study. Even if you could invent a cloning machine I’ve never seen a movie where that went well.

Make Time for Leisure

All work and no play makes Jack Nicholson chase his wife around with an axe or something. I know it’s crunch time, but letting yourself enjoy some leisure activities will help you stay relaxed and make you feel less like throwing a Chernobyl.

Exercise and Eat Well.

Exercise really does drag the stress out of your body kicking and screaming horror-movie style. A good, brisk walk or a bike ride – or lifting some hideously large stack of weights if that’s your deal – will leave you feeling clearer and calmer. Please, don’t forget to eat and hydrate. If you’re not fuelling your body, or what you’re putting into it has no actual nutritional value, your brain is going to run out of juice.


“If you’re not breathing, you’re not thinking”, explains Noel. “Personally I count my breath in – 1, 2, 3, and then I count my breath out 1, 2, 3. Then I try and add one second each time. Like 1, 2, 3, 4, breathe out.”

This technique prevents you from hyperventilating, slows your heart rate and oxygenates your body. This is a really helpful tip that will help you keep control of your stress response and keep you in your peak performance window. Taking a few seconds to breathe and centre yourself before answering each question is a great way to focus, conquer panic and feed your brain oxygen before answering.

Noel recommends students practise this until it becomes second nature.

“I’m panicking, what can I do?”

If you find yourself seated in front of an exam paper and your stress spirals out of control, let the exam supervisor know. “Try not to black out and just stare at the test”, advises Noel. If no one knows you’re having a panic attack, no one can help you reassemble your mind, or look to reschedule the exam.

Where to find help

If exam stress is getting on top of you and you feel helpless in the face of sheer terror don’t suffer in silence. Grab a coffee and D&M with a friend, get in contact with a fellow student and help each other, or contact a UON counsellor or one of the many other UON services.

There’s also some great information on exams, stress and stress management here.

Good luck with your exams. Stay stressed, just not too stressed.

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