The biology behind stress: Addressing final exam anxiety

Assumption College Undergraduate

Friday, December 11 to Thursday, December 17 marks final exam week for fall semester at Assumption.

For many students, including those who are pursuing a bachelor’s in biology, exams can be a source of significant stress. But one of the best ways to combat stress is to understand the biology behind it. To know why our bodies respond to stress in a certain way can help us calm our nerves.

For example, take a look at how we crave comfort foods as a response to stress. According to Daniel Lieberman, evolutionary biologist and professor at Harvard University, the stress hormone cortisol is to blame for this. Cortisol is released in response to a stressor, which releases sugar into the bloodstream. It’s an extra boost so you can take on whatever you’re dealing with — whether it’s a lion or an exam.

“It makes you more alert,” says Lieberman, “but it also exacts a toll. Cortisol makes us want to bring in more energy to cope again, with those energetic needs. So stress activates basic primal urges to eat calorie-rich food.”

What helps our brains and bodies function at their best, however, is healthy food. And not just on exam day, even the week before. One study at the University of Oxford tested college students on attention and thinking speed. For the following five days, some were then fed a high-fat, low-carb diet of cheese, cream, eggs and meat. Others consumed a balanced diet of fruits and vegetables. Afterwards, they were tested again. The high fat group’s performance declined, while the balanced diet group held steady.

And perhaps how you think about your stress might make a difference as well. Author and Stanford psychology professor Kelly McGonigal’s research finds that how you think about stress, and the ability to embrace it may actually help you handle stress well.

In her classes, McGonigal “began introducing research that shows stress can be helpful in high pressure situations to enhance performance. And the more you take that mindset, the more stress and anxiety can propel you to greater success.”

As exam week begins and you prepare for your best, keep an eye on staying healthy, eating right, sleeping well, and breaking a sweat. Know what helps you de-stress and make a little time for that throughout the week.  Good luck!

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