Tackling Stress Physically

Stress is a physical strain on the body. It puts your body in a constant state of anxiety, which makes you nervous, edgy, and drains your energy reserves.

You can help your body by:

  • Eating the right kind of food

  • Allowing it to get rid of its nervous energy

  • Avoiding making yourself worse.

  • Helping it to relax properly when work is over for the day

    Back to the exam stress introduction



    Eating the right kind of food

    Some foods are simply more calming than others. Milk, for example, contains naturally occurring morphine-like substances which help to calm you down. Mashed potato is a well-known "comfort food", and so are bread and baked beans. Lettuce, and other raw vegetables, are also helpful when you're trying to use your diet to help to keep your calm.

    Some foods, on the other hand, just help to wind you up. Sugar is the main culprit here. It may give an instant "energy hit", but that's at the cost of making you even more nervy than you were before. In fact, just about any very sweet foods are going to increase your overall stress level if you eat them a lot.

    Chocolate, interestingly enough, seems to be an exception. There is lots of speculation why, and one possibility is that the calming effect of the theobromine in the chocolate cancels out the effect of the sugar. Whatever the reason, if you absolutely must eat sweet things during your exam time, then try to keep to chocolate rather than directly sugary ones. Honey doesn't seem to be too bad, either, as far as we know.

    There hasn't been anything like enough research done on the question, but there has been some suggestion that highly synthetic chemicals such as aspartame - the artificial sweetener which is often used to replace sugar - can contribute to stress and depression. It's probably better to avoid those too when you're under particularly high pressure - stick to "natural" foods as much as you can.

    Back to the physical list


    Allowing your body to get rid of its nervous energy

    One of the problems of being under stress is that you don't ever really get to relax. As a result, you feel continuously tired, and don't sleep well. There are a number of ways that you can actively help your body to calm down, WITHOUT damaging your exam chances. (There are also lots of ways that you can try to calm down which will damage them quite a bit, but we'll discuss those in the next section.)

    The most important thing of all is to give your body some exercise. After all, what's really happening when you are under stress is that your body has been continually triggering off age-old mechanisms which we've evolved to deal with threat.s Those mechanisms involve getting lots of energy to your muscles, so that you can either fight off the threat, or run away. But in the modern world, threats (such as failing exams) aren't quite that physical. And they don't go away quickly, either.

    There's not a lot of point in trying to reason with a survival mechanism that's millions of years old, because you probably won't win. Instead, you're best off just giving your body what it wants - the opportunity to use up some of that nervous energy in demanding physical exercise.

    It doesn't really matter whether you cycle, skate, swim, do aerobics, play tennis, or do anything else - as long as it's your whole body you're exercising. Sorry, but chess just isn't good enough!

    There's another advantage to exercising, too. Quite apart from calming you down, it also increases the rate of blood flow around the body, and to the brain as well. It appears that this can help you to think more clearly, and to learn better. So even if you don't exercise much in the normal run of things, when you're revising for exams or taking them, exercise is exactly what you need!

    Back to the physical list


    Avoiding making yourself worse.

    There are lots of ways that you can make your stress much worse than it needs to be, and at exam time, you need to make sure that you avoid them as much as possible. We'll be looking at ways you can make your stress worse mentally in the next section, but there are physical ways that you can do it, too. For example: not eating, or fasting, stimulates a particularly active state in the body. It's an old evolutionary survival mechanism, which has the purpose of encouraging you to go out and seek food, actively. In the process, though, you become more agitated, and less able to concentrate on other things. So it's absolutely vital to eat regularly during exam times.

    Caffeine is a very powerful drug, which acts directly on the central nervous system and heightens emotional arousal. But you've got enough emotional arousal just from worrying about the exams in any case, so it's an extremely bad idea to fill your system up with a drug which will exaggerate that! Try to drink less coffee in the period before and during exams - drink milk instead, if you can (see above), or tea at the very least.

    Some drugs help you to relax, but at a serious cost. And the worst culprit here is alcohol. The reason why alcohol is so popular as a social drug is because it has an amnesiac effect - it helps you to forget things. So people use it to relax because it helps them to forget what's bothering them - at least for the time being. The trouble is, though, is that alcohol isn't particularly selective in what it helps you to forget. And during exam times forgetting is exactly what you don't need to do! So if you really want to help yourself, it's best avoided until the exams are over.

    Back to the physical list


    Helping your body to relax properly

    One of the effects of stress is that you never really relax. Even when you take time off, you're worrying about the exam, and wondering what you should be doing. So it's worth taking some positive steps to help your body to relax, and get a break from the constant tension.

    One possibility which you might like to try out is aromatherapy. This involves using essential oils from plants, which can help you to relax more easily. Everyone's different, and some people find that it doesn't seem to make much difference to them, but it may be worth a go. Try a couple of drops of lavender oil on your pillow at night, and see if it helps you to sleep better. Or put a few drops of lavender or geranium oil into your bath.

    Another thing which you might find helpful is to spend as much time as possible in the open air. Apparently fresh air has chemical compounds which are not present in indoor, processed air - which is why washing smells different when it's hung outside to dry. Lots of people find that just being outside helps them to relax - whether it's walking, gardening, or even studying! Again, everyone's different, but this does apply to most people, so you might as well try it! Half an hour or an hour spent outside in fresh air can make quite a difference to how well you sleep, and to how you feel generally.

    If you live in the heart of a city and can't manage the fresh air bit, you could always try some of the alternatives: turkish baths, saunas and the like. They are all about relaxing your body, which can make quite a lot of difference to how you feel. Even if you don't do anything else, going for a sauna each week can help you to get back to your revision feeling much more relaxed and refreshed.


    Return to Nicky's Home Page

    Return to the exam stress front page