With the onset of midterm season, students find themselves experiencing higher level of stress over the demands of approaching deadlines. Lifestyle medicine expert Dr. Sher Bovay shares scientifically proven ways to train for stress endurance and capacity, thereby improving performance. Stress is a physiological response, and it’s normal for individuals to experience acute stressors everyday. Acute stress can help you abruptly brake your car to avoid collision or motivate you to get started on an assignment. It is chronic stress, however, that becomes problematic.

“This [stress] is a primitive response to get the body moving, the stress response in acute phase is completely appropriate,” said Bovay. The same response is triggered in modern life despite the absence of an immediate threat.

Over time, the strain of consistent stress on the body becomes detrimental to one’s overall health. Bovay explained that perpetual stress can cause problems in the cardiovascular system, increase hypertension, induce gastrointestinal problems, eating disorders, and chronic mental health issues.

There are ways to train yourself to respond accordingly to stressors, whether your source of stress is midterms, demands of the workplace or personal relationships. Some stressors pose real threats, and while other sources are merely perceived, when unchecked, can become a cause of chronic stress.  “One of the things that you can do is to completely disengage from your work, from demands, having down time where one can give themselves mentally, a complete break,” said Bovay. While it might seem sensible to invest long hours in studying before a midterm, if a student finds themselves cramming, Bovay suggests that students approach study periods as a series of sprints rather than a marathon and to take mental breaks in between study period of ninety minutes.

A 2008 study by Richard Chambers, Barbara Chuen Yee Lo and Nicholas B. Allen shows improvement in attention and improved performance in test taking through the introduction of mindful meditation. Bovay suggests that students commit to a habit of practicing relaxation exercises like deep breathing, yoga, stretches, and meditation in their daily endeavours.

“Everybody is different” said Bovay, reminding us that susceptibility to stress and stress experience is specific to each individual. Aspects like the individual’s environment and genome vary, which affects the size of the amygdala. The amygdala is the gland responsible for producing stress hormones. Integrating relaxation exercises ten minutes a day has shown to shrink the amygdala, Bovay explained.

The three main stress management techniques that Bovay emphasizes are rest, diet, and exercise.  “For an athlete to perform, they need to train hard but they also need a break. Training harder does not mean they will receive better results. It’s that full engagement and full rest time[sic],” Bovay said while discussing the importance of rest and recovery in between intensive study sessions. 

Dr. Bovay herself is the mother to a third-year university student and she shared her astonishment toward her son’s study habit; “when my son is studying he has music [with] like 10 different things going on, how do you focus? That actually affects the effectiveness and these multiple elements can induce a stress response.”

“[The] mind can only entertain one thing at a time, so having all these things [going on], the depth of concentration will be affected by every interruption, and it takes about eight minutes to get back to that depth of concentration,” Bovay added.

To achieve this depth of concentration and to keep your stress levels in check, managing your diet plays an important role. Bovay suggested that students eat every three hours, leaning toward higher nutrient food, high quality protein and vegetables. She finds that it helps to think of your body as a car — you need to be fed well to achieve good mileage.

It’s also important to recognize that chronic stress is a precursor to mental illness like anxiety and depression. You might want to reward yourself after a long study session by having a talk with a friend, or spending time away from the stressor. Whether that is a short walk around the park, doing some push-ups in the middle of your living room, or even dancing by yourself in your room, it helps to rejuvenate even for a moment.“If you don’t have time, instead of going to the gym, even taking the time to walk to places helps. For example, get off one stop early and walk,” said Bovay. She also added that even walking ten to fifteen minutes, four times a week can help with sleep and stress.

Bovay explained that sleep and stress are intertwined, if you don’t sleep long enough it affects your stress level, you become easily irritable and are likely to feel overwhelmed. In the same way, if you are experiencing high levels of stress, it may be hard to fall asleep.

Physical activity, sleep, and diet are key components of healthy integrative treatment toward building stress capacity. Bovay believes that anyone can reap the benefits once they adopt these simple habits.  It’s also important that students seek help if they are feeling overwhelmed and find someone to talk to during a stressful period.