Improving Academic Performance

Calm Your Mind: Understanding & Managing Stress

Posted by Mark Skoskiewicz on Thu, Mar 12, 2015 @ 12:32 PM

managing-stress-test-taking“A bit of stress in short doses is useful in improving our memory and enhancing performance. However, too much, too regularly, is extremely damaging to our mental and physical well-being.”

From https://www.headspace.com/science/stress, a web-site founded by globally recognized mindfulness and meditation expert Andy Puddicomb

Just because you have no major or minor diagnosed mental health disorder, doesn’t mean you have a completely healthy mind. If school, work, sports, orsocial situations tend to make you nervous and stressed, your performance suffers.

You’ve probably heard that the right amount of stress is a good thing, but too little or too much stress is a bad thing. The idea is that if you are too care free, you may let important tasks fall through the cracks, and end up dropping the ball on that big school project.  At the same time, if you are extremely nervous about performing poorly and get really worked up before a big test, you might find yourself having a lot of trouble concentrating or thinking clearly.   Too little stress or too much stress is bad, but the right amount of “stress” can lead to clear thinking, appropriate focus, and a generally extremely helpful sense of calm and confidence that allows you to execute on test day or deliver a great presentation in school or at work.

Here’s an incredibly short primer on the science behind the above paragraph.  We humans can control part of our nervous system: thoughts, muscle movement, etc. But, after that, lots of our nervous system is beyond our conscious control.  We know how our body works, but can’t directly control it. The Autonomic Nervous System (ANS) is the part of our nervous system which we can’t directly control. It regulates thinks like kidney function, liver function, healing, etc.  The ANS itself can be broken down into two sub-systems, the Sympathetic Nervous System (SNS) and the Parasympathetic Nervous System (PNS).

The SNS is what gets activated when we are extremely excited, afraid, or stressed out.  It’s the evolutionary “fight or flight” response you may have heard of. If a man jumps out of a dark alley and punches you, the SNS will increase adrenaline, and decrease blood to any part of the body that isn’t good at helping you fight or run away. So, the immune system, libido, and brain get less blood are partially “deactivated” while the muscle tighten up and your arms and legs receive more blood.  In other words, your immune system, libido, and brain kind of turns off, while your arms and legs and heart turn on.  You are ready to fight or fun, but not to think. Obviously, this is bad for academic performance.

The PNS system, on the other hand, is the bodies “relaxation response.”  When the PNS is activated, essentially everything we just read about with SNS is reversed. You aren’t ready to run or fight, but you are much calmer, breathing slower, and receiving more blood to the brain.  Ready to calmly think and problem solve.  Whereas the SNS dominated state is good for fighting and fleeing, the PNS dominated state is good for focus, concentration, recall, and analyzing information.

When it comes to academic performance, taking tests, or performing well at work, you need your SNS to keep you awake, but not for much more.  In general, you’ll perform better when the PNS system, which again helps you focus, analyze, and problem solve, is in control.  In other words, roughly, when we think of “stress” in layman’s terms, the SNS system is what creates stress, while the PNS system is what reduces it.

“….chronic stress also exerts a strong and adverse effect on the brain even altering brain cells, brain structure, and brain function.  Research has shown that unmanaged stress:

  • Diminishes short, and long-term memory
  • Inhibits the formation of new memories
  • Diminishes the ability to learn new things
  • Diminishes problem-solving abilities
  • Diminishes the ability to concentrate”

Joshua David O’Brien, founder of the Mindfulness Community of Central Pennsylvania

In one study, individuals were placed into two categories: 1) high stress and 2) low stress, and then given a series of problem solving and memory tests.  The low stress group performed 2x better.

test-taking-managing-stress-myguru

So, what can you do to activate your PNS and manage your stress?

The answer to stress management is a little odd to some.   Healthy eating, appropriate nutrition, a positive attitude, and constantly maintain perspective on events in your life are hugely important factors.  However, recognition of the power of the breath, which naturally extends into what is called “practicing mindfulness” and sometimes “meditating” are important underused solutions to over-stressed lives, particularly in western countries.

The following is borrowed from Joshua David O’Brien, founder of the Mindfulness Community of Central Pennsylvania

“Mindfulness Meditation is a practice of being fully and attentively present in the moment. In the same way one might practice a musical instrument or martial arts form, we practice being mindful and aware through skillful meditation. In formal practice we use the breath as an object of awareness. We follow the physical sensations of the breath as it flows in and out of the body. We allow the breath to flow naturally without controlling it as you would in a breathing exercise….one of the first things we learn when we try to do this practice is how easily distracted the mind can be. All sorts of thoughts, ideas, feelings, and sensations call for our attention and we find we’ve forgotten all about the breath.”

Simply practicing mindfulness for 10-15 minutes a day can lead to significant benefits in a relatively short period of time. Again according to https://www.headspace.com/science, after as few as 11 hours of accumulated mindfulness practice, the brain changes structurally to improve focus and self-control, people are able to stay on tasks longer, anxiety and stress was reduced, and the list goes on.

Clearly, all of these benefits are directly applicable to improving academic performance.  I think that if we taught ourselves and our children how to practice mindfulness, we’d see better grades, higher test scores, and better overall performance in and outside of school.

To read more about being mindful, consider reading -

Here is a popular “TED” talk about the benefits of taking 10 minutes out of your day to be mindful.

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