Stress is an unavoidable part of life- but that doesn’t make it any easier to deal with. As April is Stress Awareness Month, and exam season is right around the corner, I wanted to share some science-backed strategies to cope with stress, which you can encourage your students to use.
But first- what exactly is stress? The stress system actually evolved to protect us. When we are afraid, a part of the brain called the amygdala sends signals to the body causing physical changes which prepare us to fight or to run. This is known as the fight or flight reflex, and it involves signals that travel via our nerves, but also the release of chemicals, including adrenaline and cortisol- often called the ‘stress hormone’. Our heart rate and breathing increase to boost the amount of oxygen traveling around our bodies. Blood sugar rises so our muscles can work to their full potential. And at the same time, non-vital processes like digestion and the immune system are shut down.
In the short term, this is helpful, as it prepares us to run away from the bear that is attacking us. But it is meant to be short-lived. Either we outrun the bear and survive, or we don’t! In the modern world, however, the things we are stressed about are often longer lasting- like exams, the climate, or the cost-of-living crisis. And if this stress system is constantly activated, even at a low level, it’s bad news for our bodies and minds.
So what can we do? Luckily, there is plenty of research telling us what works to reduce stress levels. Not all these tips will work for everyone, but choosing just a few of these might help you, or your students, handle life’s stresses a bit more easily.
1) Spend time with friends & family
Humans are a social species, and being around friends or family can help reduce the activity of the stress system, and promote the release of oxytocin, a chemical that counteracts some of the negative impacts of stress.
2) Hang out with your pet
Another way to promote oxytocin is to spend time with your pet- even better if you are stroking them. Pets are so good at calming us down, they are even used in care homes and universities, to boost mood and reduce stress [i]
3) Treat yourself to a massage, or use a weighted blanket
Oxytocin is also released when pressure is applied to our skin, so you can boost levels by giving or receiving a massage. Some experts also believe that a weighted blanket might provide some of the same benefits.
4) Get enough sleep
One of the biggest factors in resilience to stress is sleep. When we haven’t slept well our emotional amygdala becomes more reactive, and we are less able to think rationally about our problems. For more on why sleep and emotions are so entwined, see our blog post Why do I get grumpy when I’m tired?
5) Try meditation, yoga, or tai chi
These practices involve controlled deep breathing, which may help calm the stress response, reducing your heart rate and cortisol levels. Long-term meditators also become better at regulating their emotions. Not all types of meditation or yoga work for everyone, though, so it’s important to find one that suits you, and makes you feel relaxed and in control.
6) Get some exercise
Exercise is a great mood booster, and helps keep your brain and body healthy. Many people report a ‘runner’s high’ after a session- this is often put down to endorphins, but there isn’t much evidence to support this. We do, however, know that a workout changes the levels of a whole host of brain chemicals, and has a big impact on overall stress levels.
7) Practice gratitude
Whether it’s keeping a journal, practicing loving-kindness meditation, or just counting your blessings at the end of a long day, there is growing evidence that gratitude practices improve your health and mood. Over time, they teach your brain to focus on the positives and make you more resilient to stress.
8) Spend time in nature
Scientists have found that when we spend 2 hours a week in nature, we report better health and well-being. Luckily, it seems pretty much any natural area has benefits- whether it’s a local park, a forest, or the seaside. But it does seem that the more wild the area is, and the more different types of plants and animals it contains, the better it is for our health. For more, see our fact sheet on nature and well-being.
9) Do something creative
Creative hobbies like painting, sewing, or writing are great for your mental health. They can help quiet the mind, as you focus on what you are doing, and can allow you to express feelings you might not be able to put into words. Plus, they are great fun! [ii]
A good laugh can be a great way to shake off the stresses of the day- so why not pop on a sit-com, or meet up with that friend who always has you in stitches? Alternatively, you could try laughter yoga- amazingly, even forced laughter helps reduce stress [iii](although participants in laughter classes usually find the fake laughter becomes real pretty quickly!)
These tips won’t work for everyone, and they aren’t a ‘fix’ for mental health problems, so if you are struggling with symptoms of anxiety or depression, and it is affecting your day-to-day life, it’s important to seek help from a medical professional. But for those of us with milder symptoms, these techniques can help us manages stress when we experience it. You might also want to check out our mental wellbeing tips for Children's Mental Health Week. As our understanding of the brain science of stress and anxiety develops, the hope is we will find more and better ways for everyone to live happier and healthier lives.
[i] Therapy dogs help students relax and relieve stress | Penn Today (upenn.edu)
[ii] Everyday creative activity as a path to flourishing: The Journal of Positive Psychology: Vol 13, No 2 (tandfonline.com)
[iii]Laughter yoga reduces the cortisol response to acute stress in healthy individuals - PubMed (nih.gov)