How to cope with study stress as your HSC exams approach.
In a little over two months, written HSC exams in New South Wales will have commenced; some practical exams will start sooner. It’s been a difficult year with the closure of schools and disruption to ‘normal’ lives but nonetheless 75,000 students around New South Wales, and more throughout Australia are on the count down to this final step in their schooling aka the beginning of their future. Are you one of them? For many, this is an incredibly stressful period, yet there are natural ways to make this time a little more endurable. Read on to discover my recommendations.
Ok, I know this is a time when you are probably reaching for the pick me up sugary snacks or the coffees to get you through your study load but I strongly recommend that you actually cut back on these. Caffeine and sugar are stimulants that can affect the way your body deals with stress. I’m not saying leave them out all together but maybe limit the coffee or tea to once a day and replace with plenty of water or herbal teas (chamomile and lemon balm are great for calming). The sugary snacks would be better replaced with a handful of nuts, a blissball or a piece of fruit.
Not only is sugar a stimulant but it’s also a high glycemic food, meaning that it causes energy spikes quickly after eating followed by energy slumps causing you to reach out for that sugary snack or coffee once again. One of the best ways to avoid getting into this cycle during the day is to make sure that you have a really wholesome, protein-rich breakfast. Breakfast? Yep, that’s right breakfast! If you really can’t stomach breakfast first thing, then that’s OK, aim to have a nourishing morning tea instead. Eggs, porridge, overnight-oats and smoothies are great breakfasts and the latter two could easily be consumed for morning tea (even at recess at school).
In general, I advise eating as naturally as possible, yep that’s the wholegrains, fruit, vegetables, legumes and eggs/meat/fish. Real foods are going to be the best place to find B-vitamins and magnesium, both of which are important in managing energy levels and supporting your body to manage stress well. Try and include omega-3 in your meals too, so things like fatty fish, chia seeds, flaxseeds and walnuts as this is important within your brain and nervous system.
I’m sure you know that regular exercise is good for you. It keeps you fit and healthy, and boosts your moods. But it’s so easy to fall into the trap of believing that your studies are more important, especially if you are feeling stressed. It’s so important to maintain whatever sporting/exercise activity you enjoy to do, whether it’s a team sport, dancing or going for a surf. It may not be the time to over do it but a well-balanced exercise programme will help cope with stress. Aiming for 30 minutes exercise every day is a useful recommendation.
It’s also valuable to schedule regular breaks throughout your study day. Getting up, walking around the house can help refocus and if possible, walks around the block, may actually help process the concepts you are learning. I know that I certainly find that when I’m learning, that my brain seems to filter through the information more clearly, when I’m out in the fresh air.
If you’re not big on sport, don’t worry! Take the dog for a walk, go for a swim, or even try a you tube video on yoga - I personally like Yoga with Adriene as there’s so many free options of varying lengths - there’s plenty aimed for dealing with stress, brain power and cognitive boost!
Relax! Yep, you need to find time to relax. Schedule it in to your study plan and don’t skip it! It doesn’t have to be long but it’s important to allow your heightened body functions to return to normal. Have you noticed that when you’re stressed, your muscles tend to tighten, or you might feel more breathless, even your heart rate may have gone up a bit? Well, this is the body’s natural reaction to stress, whether the stress is physical or emotional. But your body is not designed to carry on in this mode for long periods and so, you need to give it time to return to normal, hence, relaxation. Being relaxed helps you to be calmer, have a clearer mind, to be positive, to concentrate, boosts the memory and helps you make decisions.
You may need to try a few different relaxation methods as everyone will respond differently. You could try meditation or mindfulness, yoga (tying it in with your exercise makes this a time-efficient method!). Even taking time out to listen to music (maybe not the latest hip-hop or your favourite dance track), stare at the clouds or watching the waves roll up the beach. Be in the moment; think about the now.
Take an Epsom salt bath will relax, plus boost your magnesium levels, and can be a useful part of your bedtime routine (see sleep below for more on this)
Hang out with your friends! Have a laugh! Help each other to study and to relax. Stay connected to the special people around you, whether that’s family, friends, teachers or someone else. Share your feelings with them. Share your knowledge with someone else - it’s a great study skill plus it boosts your confidence. You might be
able to combine your social time with one of the above suggestions such as doing exercise with your friend, or sitting down to a nourishing family meal together. Having a good support network is essential to boost your mood, reduce stress hormones and releases the feel-good endorphins. Often, laughter is the best medicine!
How much sleep are you getting? Sleep, I cannot stress how important this is in managing stress. It might be tempting to stay up late, studying, especially if you haven’t got through all that you wanted during the day. But, the later you stay up or the more stressed you get, you’ll find you gradually become sleep deprived. This adds to the exam stress as you now don’t have the energy to concentrate on your studies and even the simplest of steps can seem like a marathon of learning. Don’t get on the sleep-deprived cycle if you can help it. Set yourself a bedtime. This will be dependent upon when you need to get up. As a general rule, year 12s need around 8-9 hours of sleep a night, possibly up to 10 hours, if you’re a young Year 12! So if you need to be up at 7.00am, then you’ll need to be lights off/going to sleep at 10.00pm (give or take an hour!). But, to get the best night’s sleep you’ll need to allow your body to wind down for a good 1-2 hours before that. This might mean stopping study early evening, taking time to relax, reading a book, listening to music or journalling, taking a shower, even, doing a bit of stretching or yoga or mindfulness. This becomes part of your bedtime routine. A good bedtime routine combined with sleep hygiene practices, such as no blue lights from devices in your room, external noises, street lights, phones tempting you to look at every notification, can really help avoid the sleep deprivation vicious cycle.
I truly recommend that you prioritise sleep to optimise your brain, energy and health to support your learning. Don’t hate me, but my best tip is to stick to a routine, even on the weekends, and leave your phone out of your room when you go to bed!
And so that’s it. I cannot express how important it is to eat well, move well, relax, laugh and sleep well. Well done on finding the time to read through this; I hope it’s useful. Good Luck with the last couple of months of your studies.
If you would like any further help supporting yourself or your teen manage their stress, please contact me. I can provide individual nutritional and lifestyle recommendations, including good quality nutritional supplements, like B-vitamins and Magnesium, if I feel they would be beneficial. For all bookings, please click this link.
Selhub, E, The Adrenal/Stress/Sleep Masterclass, health Masters Live - accessed 2019
Hechtman, L, 2014, Clinical naturopathic Medicine, Elsevier
NSW Government, 2020, HSC timetable released for 2020 exams, https://education.nsw.gov.au/news/latest-news/hsc-timetable-released-for-2020-exams#:~:text=A%20HSC%20exam%20timetable%20announcement%20from%20the%20NSW%20Education%20Standards%20Authority.&text=HSC%20exams%20start%20on%2020,sitting%20the%20exams%20this%20year.