Stress isn’t just a “silent killer”—it can also act as a major roadblock for your education. Think of how hard it is to focus on something when you’re feeling harried, distracted, and/or put-upon. Stress is like an excitable dog on a leash, always tugging ahead and pulling you along with it. Learning how to calm that beast and tame it takes time and effort but can pay off serious dividends for your mental and physical health.
Studying doesn’t have to be stressful! Keep these rules of thumb in mind the next time you hit the books to keep yourself on an even keel.
Say “Scram!” to Cram
Like death and taxes, procrastination comes for us all eventually. Such is the temptation of cramming as a study method: instead of spending multiple hours stretched across days and weeks of studying, you could wait until the last minute and try to absorb all the information you need in just one night. The only problem is that cramming doesn’t really work. Studies have found that information learned while cramming is rarely retained and can be difficult to recall afterwards. Cramming is also a very stressful, high stakes form of studying that puts a lot of pressure on students for little benefit.
Take Small Bites
Instead of cramming, a more effective and low-stress approach to studying is to spread out your workload over a long stretch of time in easy to process chunks of information. Rather than trying to tackle a big subject head on, break it into smaller pieces: read a couple of pages a day, master a new complex concept every week, or make a few more flash cards to add to your growing stack. Incremental growth is the new of the game.
A healthy body and mind will have an easier and less stressful time absorbing information. Making sure your brain is properly nourished with essential vitamins and nutrients can make all the difference in having a smooth study session. Here are a few food staples that make for great brain candy:
- Berries: Blueberries, strawberries, and blackberries have high flavonoid contents that can increase blood flow to your brain and improve signal pathways in your nerve cells that impact learning and memory.
- Eggs: Eggs are rich in Vitamin B12, choline, and selenium. These are nutrients that make a big impact on brain functioning. Eggs also contain lutein, which has been tied to improved visual and mental function. Just make sure you eat whole eggs, not just the whites, to get their full nutritional contents.
- Nuts: Nuts are an excellent source of Vitamin E, zinc, protein, fiber, and healthy fats. Studies have also found that eating nuts led to improved reaction time and performance on brain tests for some students.
- Citrus Fruit: Fruits like oranges and grapefruit are also rich in flavonoids. Not only do they help improve learning and memory functions, citrus flavonoids can also shield nerve cells from injury, which helps protect against mental decline.
On the other side of the coin: there are certain kinds of foods you should avoid while studying. There are certain foods and beverages that can negatively impact your ability to stay focused on your studies and retain key information.
- Caffeine: Coffee is a staple for late night studying. It’s the fuel that keeps so many of us going. Unfortunately, caffeinated drinks can be stress-inducing and counter-productive. Caffeine provides a short boost of energy by blocking the chemical adenosine from entering your nerves. Adenosine is what helps you sleep. When your body’s supply of adenosine is blocked, it can cause you to undergo symptoms of anxiety. Anxiety and memory loss are closely linked. When you’re in an anxious state it can be very hard to retain or recall important information.
- Sugar: A sugar high is another go-to source for study fuel, but like caffeine it often does more harm to your studies than good. While sugar is stimulating and energetic it can also have a negative effect on cognitive function and memory.
- Fried Food: Fried food is delicious but it's loaded with saturated fats and cholesterol that can block blood from entering the brain, reducing its ability to function.
Studying usually involves a lot of sitting, reading, and writing. It’s a very sedentary activity. A great way to alleviate stress while studying is to incorporate movement and exercise into your routine. Make a point of getting up and walking around for five to 10 minutes at the end of every hour. Take a moment to stretch while you’re on your feet. Even some quick basic exercises like touching your toes, lunges, and squats can help shake off any physical or mental lethargy you’re feeling.
One way to make it easier to incorporate physical activity into your studies is to use the Pomodoro Method. It’s a pretty simple process: get an egg timer (or use your cell phone time), set it to 25-50 minutes, and as soon as it rings stop what you’re doing, get up, and take an activity break. It might seem counter-intuitive to interrupt your studies like this, but even taking a five-minute break to walk to another room and back could give you the mental reset you need to power you through another half hour of focused learning.