The nights devoted to partying till dawn are just as widely associated with the university experience as the equally excessive all-nighters spent squinting at bright computer screens in the middle of the night or burying the nose in a book, fuelled by caffeine. Especially (but not only) during exam season stress can quickly build up so be careful you don’t end up buried beneath it! Here are four habits to integrate into your day that have scientifically been proven to reduce stress.
The word “meditation” often conjures up mental images of peaceful monks, sitting with their eyes closed and leg-crossed in Lotus position, perhaps humming the famous “Om”. While it is true that meditation is practised by Buddhist monks, this is not to say that it is not for everyone. You certainly don’t need to become a monk and you don’t even need to sit with your legs crossed to meditate.
What is mediation?
Meditation is the act of intentionally focusing on the present moment. Even concentrated ironing or cleaning can lead to a meditative state. There are over 3,000 studies on the benefits of meditation but this post will shed light on the one benefit that is particularly relevant to busy students: stress reducing. A 2007 study in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences suggested that meditation not only lowered the body’s release of cortisol (a stress hormone) but also decreased anxiety and fatigue in college students. A study in 2008 published the Journal of American College Health suggested meditation diminished stress and improved forgiveness. Another study by the University of Washington found that in addition to reducing stress meditation helped people working with information to stay on tasks longer and less distractedly, and improved their memory. Why not give it a go and try it yourself? If you are a beginner, set a timer of five minutes and find a comfortable position to sit or lie in. You can close your eyes or look at a fixed object. Draw your attention to your breathing and focus on the rise and fall of your belly. Initially you will probably find your mind wandering away quite often. When this happens, relax and just draw your attention back to your breathing. Practice makes perfect!
2. Practise gratitude
Research has linked gratitude to less stress, depression and increased social support among college students. While assignment deadlines might not exactly make you feel overly grateful, maybe that is when you actually need gratitude the most. What is it that you enjoy about studying? How does it change the way you look at things? Every morning, I think of three things I am grateful for and three things that will make this day a good day. I have noticed that this small routine really boosts my mood and makes me look forward to the day ahead of me. Even a busy student has time to squeeze a little gratitude session like that into their schedule.
3. Get moving
While it is easy to forget about the rest of your body below your neck when you are busy cramming knowledge into your head, a healthy mind likes to live in a healthy body. Exercise reduces the body’s levels of stress hormones like cortisol and adrenaline while stimulating the production of endorphins that elevate the mood and act as natural painkillers. “Exercise” isn’t limited to running or hitting the gym if the thought of that alone makes you shudder. Exercise can also be dancing, inline skating, skipping ropes, or whatever other activity gets your heartbeat and mood up!
4. Proper stress-eating
How many movie scenes have you seen where someone who’s stressed grabs a lettuce bowl and a green smoothie? Probably not so many. It might be a cliché but the reality is that many people tend to crave sugary or fatty foods along with caffeinated drinks when they are stressed. However, this diet only adds to stress. The brain relies on a continuous, consistent supply of glucose to function. However, foods high in fat, starch, sugar or all three cause blood sugar levels to spike followed by an abrupt crash. This crash can be draining which is not desirable if you are already stressed in the first place!
Switch to foods that supply energy under the slogan “slow and steady” rather than “crash and burn” to keep you sharp, for example low sugar fruit, vegetables and fish. Fish like salmon is packed with omega -3 fatty acids which research has linked to keeping stress hormones like cortisol in control. The best way to avoid bingeing on junk food is to stop buying it. Instead, stock up on fresh fruit to snack on throughout the day and take lunch with you so that you don’t run to waste money on fast food when that stomach begins to growl. And what about energy drinks and coffee? Caffeine triggers the release of adrenaline which can on the one hand make you feel more alert but on the other hand it could also elevate your stress levels so it might be a good idea to keep an eye on how that drink really affects you.
You might feel like you don’t have time to destress, but if that’s the case you certainly don’t have time to rush through work and deliver mediocre results either. Be kind to your mind and body, and they’ll return the favour!
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