How to fight stress in the lead up to your GCSEs

This article is written by guest blogger Gemma LeeAt science made simple we welcome content from external writers who want to share their love of science with a wider audience!

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Exam time is surely one of the most stressful times in a student’s life. Many of us struggle to sleep, feel butterflies in our tummy or even feel a little anxious. In this post we will discuss the ‘fight or flight response’: something that people of all ages can experience when they encounter a very stressful event – sometimes, this can be an exam, or having to speak before your class or at assembly. The root of anxiety differs for everyone but be assured, anxiety affects people of all ages!

The Fight or Flight Response to Real or Imagined Danger

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Imagine that you were walking in a jungle peacefully when suddenly, a fearsome lion stepped out in front of you, with an angry expression, as if it wanted to attack you. Your mind would instantly prepare you so you could do one of two things – either run away (which probably wouldn’t work, since the lion would probably catch up to you!) or fight the lion, defending yourself against its attack. This is called the ‘fight or flight response’. It is important because when you are in a difficult situation like this, your body needs to be prepared. You need lots of oxygen (in case you need to run), and your muscles need to be ready to run or perform your best defense moves!

The Science Behind the Fight or Flight Response

When a dangerous situation such as the example above with the lion arises, or when a situation such as exams makes you feel anxious, your body responds in amazing ways. Some of the things that happen include:

  • Your lungs begin to take in more oxygen.
  • Your pupils enlarge.
  • Your digestive system slows down so you can concentrate on the present ‘threat’.
  • The heart begins to pump much faster.
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Location of the hypothalamus CC3.0 Blausen.com staff (2014)

The root of all these sensations is the hypothalamus: a part of the brain which activates two systems: the sympathetic nervous system (the part of your brain that controls bodily functions like your heart rate, breathing rate and digestion) and the adrenal-cortical system (which regulates the way we react to stress by producing certain hormones).

The hypothalamus causes both the sympathetic nervous system and the adrenal-cortical system to release hormones which help your body deal with danger. These hormones are responsible for causing your heart to beat faster, your breathing rate to go up and your blood vessels to dilate, so your muscles can be super-efficient.

What to Do When You Experience the Fight or Flight Response

If you are in a situation in which defending yourself or running away very quickly will come in handy, then the fight or flight response is the best friend you could ever have. However, if you find that your fight or flight response is invoked through an anxiety attack, there are many ways that you can use science to fight the response, by learning how to breathe deeply (this type of breathing is sometimes called abdominal breathing).

When you are really stressed and you feel like you cannot breathe, you may be experiencing a panic attack. This occurs because during a panic attack, you breathe in too much oxygen because you take in too many rapid breaths. Reverse your rapid heart rate and sense of breathlessness by breathing into a paper bag (which will ensure some of what you are breathing is CO2, not oxygen, thereby bringing oxygen levels down).

Once your breathing is back to normal, take in very deep breaths through the nose and exhale through the mouth. Take several seconds to inhale and several seconds to exhale.

Did you know that it is impossible for your heart rate to soar in panic when you are breathing this way?

Scientific studies have shown that practices such as yoga are successful at naturally bringing stress hormone levels down, and one of the reasons why is deep breathing. Another scientifically proven way to counter the fight or flight response is journaling (a way to analyse the things that stress you out and to calmly think of strategies to deal with stress in positive ways).

Mindful meditation is another easy, affordable way to lower stress. Check out the plethora of free resources on YouTube – there are short exercises aimed at people of all ages, where you can practice breathing and learn the basics of meditation, a vital lifelong aid to keep stress at bay.

Finally, head out for the Great Outdoors. Numerous studies have shown that simply being in the presence of Nature lowers levels of stress hormone levels, improves mood and makes you feel more energetic!

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Posted in Biology, Exploring Science