For several years I have worked with pupils at various local schools on how to recognise and cope with the signs of stress, particularly in the lead up to their final end of year exams.  I work with the schools to find out how this can be integrated into their curriculum.

Even I was surprised at the level of stress-type symptoms that were readily acknowledged by each class – insomnia, eating issues, panic attacks, changes in sleep patterns and migraines – being just some. The programme is able to show them why these symptoms were occurring – the fight or flight syndrome and subsequent adrenaline response. More importantly I am able to show them practical ways to ease the symptoms, from very general dietary advice, relaxation techniques and even accupressure points to relieve nausea, anxiety and headaches.

This is covered in one 50 minute lesson.

Stress is the shorthand for how we as humans respond to Stressors – Stressors are situations that place a strain or pressure on to the person – these can be physical or mental.
It is how you respond to these situations that constitutes STRESS. That is why one person can seem to thrive while another apparently crumbles in similar situations.

So long as we feel in control of our lives – the present situation – we will cope with the stressors. When we feel we are not in control, then we feel stressed.

Stress is an unavoidable part of life that is not always bad — some stress is good. In fact, everyone needs stress in their lives; without it, life would be dull and unexciting. Stress adds flavour, challenge and opportunity to life. Stress can pump you up, give you energy, supply that zest for living. You can then see why we could get addicted to it…

As a rule we can cope with 3 stressors at any one time – or 3 balls in the air. More than that, then the following responses to what is perceived as a LIFE or DEATH situation may occur.

This is known as the FIGHT or FLIGHT response.
The FIGHT or FLIGHT response evolved to ensure our survival over millions of years of evolution.

It involves on the most basic level the increase of Noradrenalin into the blood stream in response to information from the brain. We know it more as just ADRENALIN.

Adrenalin is a hormone and a neurotransmitter
This tells the body to get ready for action – serious action – action that could save its life.

SYMPTOMS

So – it will raise our heart rate, which if there hasn’t been any physical activity to burn it off, will make us feel JITTERY, ANXIOUS. BREATH becomes fast and shallow – panting.

It will tell the STOMACH that it can’t process any food right now as it needs all the body’s energy to get ready to RUN or FIGHT – so anything that will slow it down – like a full stomach – will have to go. So, you will feel SICK, may even be sick, have stomach cramps, diarrhoea, all to clear the stomach. You will loose your appetite.

Because it is telling the body to look for options for escape if necessary, it will be making the EYES dart around looking to quickly take in details, plan escape routes but not be worried about specifics.

As you may need the burst of aggression in battle so we feel WIRED, ANGRY as the slightest thing.

If the mind cannot tell the body that the danger is past then it will keep making and sending out Adrenalin which will leave us feeling exhausted. It also affects our SLEEP by interfering with Serotonin -the first brain messenger to malfunction under stress. Serotonin is found in your Pineal Gland, in the brain. It co-ordinates your body clock. Your body clock also controls the secretion of the chief stress fighting hormone CORTISOL. So, disruption of your Cortisol cycle makes sleeping more difficult.

May create longer term STOMACH issues – like IBS.

Will affect our sex-drive (sorry, fighting for life here, can’t think about that!)

HEADACHES – by causing tight muscles ready for action it will restrict blood flow into (among other areas) the shoulder muscles, affecting blood flow to the head and brain. Not wanting to eat will affect your blood sugar which too could easily cause headaches and feeling faint.

BACKACHE: adrenalin is produced in the adrenal glands which sit on top of the kidneys, situated just above the back hip bones. That plus the tight muscles can cause back pain. Tight muscles release Lactic Acid that is not being cleared from the body – just like after unaccustomed exercise when you ache.

WHY ARE EXAMS SEEMED TO BE LIFE THREATENING?

Good question – you tell me.
It is the pressure we give ourselves – or is given to us that we choose to accept- about an event.

Body and mind have not moved to evolve as quickly to adapt to our modern version of `stress’. We do not go to war much ourselves these days, but driving a car might seem like it so we act accordingly.
We are not off to hunt for food but the scrum in the supermarket can be a good substitute.
Forward planning for events used to create that sense of excitement (same symptoms as for stress- dry mouth, butterflies in stomach, needing toilet, jumpy) but we see them now as having so much more importance that rather than feel excited, we feel depressed and scared.
Sometimes just changing how we view an event can change how we are feeling –if we think of an event in the future as exciting rather than scary we could feel better generally – they are the same symptoms after all.

OUT OF CONTROL. If we feel in control we feel excited, happy, alive – if not, we feel anxious and depressed.

These symptoms and reactions are the same for every stressful situation- all through your life, not just exams.

WHAT YOU CAN DO TO HELP EXAM STRESS

1. Food
Think about what you will eat on the day.
You might not feel hungry but your brain will need fuel for the exam. Some liquid – tea or coffee maybe without milk. Dry toast? Banana? Fruit?
Walking to school and chatting to friends may be enough to burn off that adrenalin just enough to want to eat something before the exam so take a light snack and water with you. Sugar is a quick fix that by itself is not guaranteed to see you through the exam – so a cereal bar would be better, or even a small sandwich

Keep regularly drinking water – dehydration affects our ability to cope, to think, to have supple muscles, to exist.

2. Headaches
Any pain is a symptom that the body is not coping so taking painkilling pills is only masking the situation. Take time to think for a few moments what is likely to be the real cause:

– Am I tired? Was the sleep disturbed? in which case it might be tiredness. Relax by lying down for 10 -30 mins but no longer. See later on.
– Have I eaten today? Was that several hours ago? Am I hungry? Maybe my blood sugar levels have dropped. Eat a light snack – fruit and water.
– Eyes strain? Too long at the computer – see later on.
– Are my shoulders and neck very tight? Do they hurt if someone touches that area? Try giving yourself a neck and shoulder massage, being gentle with your self yet not avoiding those extra painful areas.

3. Eyestrain
– Take regular breaks, making sure you change the focus of your eyes to look at things further way as well as much closer – with a view to seeing the detail of what you are looking at.

– Rub your palms together briskly for about 10 seconds. Cover your closed eyes with the warm palms. Make sure it is a dark over your eyes as you can make it then open your eyes, letting the warmth relax the eye sockets.

4. Problems Sleeping:

These fall broadly into 2 categories:

Trouble Falling Asleep
Waking up and not easily being able to get back to sleep.

Trouble Falling Asleep.

1. Make sure you have at least 30 mins away from study or the computer before going to bed. The TV is okay so long as it is not too stimulating to the mind.
2. If you are lying awake with your eyes closed waiting for sleep try opening your eyes, gently focusing into the darkness around you, with the intention of KEEPING YOUR EYES OPEN. You might find you very quickly drift off.
3. Feel yourself sinking about 3 cms into the mattress, allowing your limbs to become heavy.
4. Breath slowly and deeply, encouraging the feeling of heaviness. Take the attention away from your busy mind into your body.
5. If you feel anxious, gently hold the Heart Protector 6 point we mentioned earlier.

Waking up and not getting back to sleep

1. Often caused by worries on your mind.
2. If something has occurred to you, keep a pen and notepad next to the pad to put down the thought and deal with it in the morning (eg musn’t forget to take `X` tomorrow)
3. Is something waking you up – animal in the room, annoying light outside, needing the toilet, hungry, cold/hot?
4. maybe keep i-pod or MP3 player handy with soothing music on it so if you are lying there listening to it might help send you to sleep.
Try gently working the point Heart Protector 6 as shown earlier
5. Panic and Anxiety: How to pass the exams
Use this routine in the exam room before you begin the exam.

BREATH – Deeply in and fully out. Slowly.
This is probably the most important thing you should remember. For all the preparation in the world will be for nothing if you do not read accurately what is in front of you on the exam paper.

Breath. Breath. Breath.

As mentioned, one symptom of the fight or flight response is rapid eye movements. Useful for looking for escape routes, not useful for reading detailed instructions that the brain then has to interpret – such as an exam question.

So, try this.

Just before you go into the hall, when your stomach flips over, take a deep breath in, pause for a second then release it fully.

As you go into the hall,

As you sit down at your desk, feeling all fingers and thumbs, do this again.

As the say turn the paper over, take a deep breath in, pause for a second then release it fully, raising your gaze upwards as you breath in, lowering eyes as you breath out.

Look at the exam paper. Take a deep breath in, pause for a second then release it fully.

Read the exam paper. Breath in and out.

Read the exam paper again and make sure you read every LITTLE word so not just the main words register with you. Panicking eyes only skim over the details.

Use Heart Protector 6 to calm the mind.

Breath, then begin to plan your answer.

Remember, what you may be experiencing is called the Fight or Flight response but no matter what happens, your life is not in danger.

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