5 ways to decreae stress before an important exam, meeting or presentation

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Do you tend to get nervous before an important exam in school, meeting at work, presentation or test? Getting nervous, or in other words, having a sympathetic nervous system activation in stressful situations is normal and has its evolutionary purposes – it helps you to get more focused, attentive and accurate in what you do.

Nevertheless, sometimes physical stress becomes excessive and when it is linked to negative emotions it is experienced as anxiousness – I bet you have experienced this too. Some of us find it hard to control anxiousness in everyday situations.

Luckily, by an understanding of your emotions and nervous system, you can hack your mind and body to a better performance.

Use these tips to get calmer and increase positive mood to nail the important event with a good flow.

 

In this article:

  1. watch your caffeine consumption for optimal nervous system balance
  2. Supplements that decrease stress
    1. l-theanine
    2. ECGC
  3. Control emotions by increasing Heart Rate Variability
    1. yoga
    2. meditation
  4. Use affirmations to boosts confidence and increase self-esteem
  5. Use memory technique that actually works – encoding specificity principle

 

1. watch your caffeine consumption for optimal nervous system balance

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Caffeine brings energy by stimulating the sympathetic nervous system and increases motivation by activating the dopaminergic pathway in the brain (R). Many times we use caffeine for concentration. Nevertheless, “too much caffeine” is a thing, and if you have a sensitive nervous system or you are a slow metabolizer of caffeine, monitoring your coffee behaviour might be good.

Nervous system balance is vital to optimal concentration and performance. More specifically, the balance between the parasympathetic nervous system (resting) and sympathetic nervous system (active) nervous system determines how energized and focused you are. This balance varies in a continuum; the other end being sleeping and the other end being hyperactive. The optimal state of the nervous system is situational and individual for each performance. This effect was found by scientists Yerkes and Dodson and thus is logically called the Yerkes-Dodson law. (R)

 

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Graph 1. Saeed, A., Trajanovski, S., van Keulen, M., & van Erp, J. (2017, November). Deep physiological arousal detection in a driving simulator using wearable sensors. In IEEE International Conference on Data Miningworkshop: Data Mining in Biomedical Informatics and Healthcare (DMBIH).

 

In the graph 1, you can see Yerkes-Dodson law described with an inverted u-shape. The peak point is the suitable nervous system arousal for your task in hand. Easier task needs more arousal and difficult tasks less arousal if you look for efficient performance. This resembles the speedometer of a car, and the peak point is when you get to your destination fast and efficiently. If the road is straight, you can reach your goal by driving faster, there is no need to slow down because you know where you are going and the ar is easy to drive straight. On the other hand, if the road is full of curves, you want to slow down the speed. If you did not, you might miss the curve. Thus, you slow down to avoid accidents and mistakes. This is a well-known tradeoff between speed and accuracy. (R) Similarly, if the task in hand in any situation is easy, you need a bit more arousal of the nervous system, to be efficient, otherwise, you will just get bored and lose your focus. f the task of hand requires more concentration and brings you a bit more challenge you want to slow down your nervous system, the internal speedometer of your accuracy will suffer.

The optimal stress state depends on two things: 1. type of the task and 2. your individual factors. For example, you might be naturally hypersensitive, and get aroused way easier than your friend. Fifth of the population has a biological factor called the sensory processing sensitivity, which affects on how active your nervous system naturally gets in different situations (R)

So, should you take coffee or not? It really depends on how nervous do you get normally before the test, and how difficult this test is for you. If you do get really nervous and the exam requires a lot of concentration, you may want to skip the extra dose of arousal from coffee or stabilize it with theanine (see the next subtopic). You need to use your self-perception and self-knowledge. Reflect back on some situation that you felt nervous; did you feel very jittery? Did you drink coffee before? Did it help or not?

 

2. Supplements that decrease stress

 

Supplement 1: L-Theanine to better mood and concentration (works with coffee)

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L-Theanine is an amino acid which is found naturally in tea leaves and mushrooms. High quality tea contains 25-60 mg theanine per cup but the majority of the scientific research that shows excellent health benefits from L-theanine uses dosages between 200–400 mg.

L-Theanine can improve concentration and it can be used to stabilize the stimulating effect of caffeine.

How l-theanine works?

When you are stressed or thinking vigorously, your brain emits electrical beta-waves. If you want to decrease stress, you want to lower that beta-activity down and instead increase the alpha-waves. Alpha waves are normally measured in meditation, REM-sleep or relaxed state and helps in concentration and single-pointed focus. L-Theanine increases alpha waves in the brain and they spread to the area of whole cortex after 2 hours of consumption. (R) L-Theanine can pass the blood-brain barrier in 30 minutes which means it can affect directly to your brain at the same rate than caffeine. When my friend had her 4th driving license test and after 3 fails she was getting really upset and nervous about the upcoming test, she had 200 mg L-theanine 2-hours before the rest. She passed and send me a message “Your medicine is magical, I think I am going to buy it!”.

This picture shows how alpha waves were increased after consumption of L-theanine (alpha waves – red). After 2 hours they reached the whole brain

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Nobre, A. C., Rao, A., & Owen, G. N. (2008). L-theanine, a natural constituent in tea, and its effect on mental state. Asia Pacific journal of clinical nutrition17(S1), 167-168.

 

Supplement 2: ECGC – the active ingredient of the green tea

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Many studies show that green tea links to better health and focus (R). In a recent double-blind controlled study, participants were firstly measured in their cognitive and cardiovascular functioning, mood and a resting state brain waves. Then one group consumed 300 mg of EGCG. They increased more alpha, beta and theta activity in the brain compared to control group. Interestingly, they also reflected more EEG activity in frontal parts of the brain. This was concluded to mean more attention, focus, and calmness. EGCG treatment also increased self-rated calmness and reduced self-rated stress more than the control group (R)

 

3. Control emotions by increasing Heart Rate Variability 

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Many times exams stress comes with negative emotions, rumination or anxiety. Heart Rate Variability (HRV) or R-R interval or vagal tone is a marker of nervous system activation, which can be used to assess stress. Heart rate variability means the variability in the moments’ length between your individual heartbeats (R). It is different from heart rate so that it actually measures the length in between the beats rather than the beats.

Increased HRV has been linked to relaxed state and decreased HRV to stress-state. Thus interestingly (and counter-intuitively) the more your heart rate varies beat per beat, the more calm state you are in. To put it simply; if your HRV is high, you are calm, is your HRV is low, you are under stress.

Increased HRV (calmness) is linked to emotional control and improved cognition and thus may help you to keep calm and optimistic in an exam situation. (R) Conversely, lower HRV is associated with worse cognition in stressful situations, which may decrease the performance (R)

Scientific studies show that HRV can be increased with training meditation and increasing positive emotion and calmness in general. Here is some tip for that:

 

HRV technique 1: A short morning yoga can decrease stress and increase heart rate variability

In a recent systematic review, it was concluded that yoga can increase HRV. Yoga also has an effect on resting state HRV, which means the benefits of yoga each far beyond the practice. This study combined data from 59 studies, but many of them had a small and limited sample size. Nevertheless, it makes sense that yoga has an effect on HRV because yoga practice includes meditation and breath awareness. All these have shown to have an effect on HRV, calmness, and mood. (R)

Youtube has excellent short yoga practices to calm you down before an important event:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

HRV technique 2: 10-minute Loving-Kindness (Metta) meditation brings positive emotions and calmness

In a landmark study of positive emotions by Dr. Barbara Fredrikson, participants increased their HRV with Loving-Kindness meditation. Loving-Kindness meditation, also called Metta meditation, comes from the Buddhist tradition. It has been studied widely in past few decades in western scientists especially in the field of Positive Psychology. It has been shown to increase HRV by increasing positive emotions, breath awareness and stillness (meditation) (R). In Fredrickson’s study the effect was immediate, so, LKM might be a useful practice just before an important event. Personally, I use this all the time for calmness and for me it definitely works better than pure breath awareness meditation. I have been able to increase my HRV with it, but also self-reflected subjective well-being. I also use this meditation in my bed if I have difficulties falling asleep.

 

 

 

 

Learn more about HRV: The HeartMath Solution: The Institute of HeartMath’s Revolutionary Program for Engaging the Power of the Heart’s Intelligence

Learn more about Loving-Kindness: Lovingkindness: The Revolutionary Art of Happiness (Shambhala Classics)

 

 

4. Use affirmations boosts confidence and increase self-esteem

Many times in stressful situations we start to doubt ourselves and our abilities to perform. We become fearful. This is normal for many, but maladaptive in exams. Events that threaten self-integrity arouse stress and can deteriorate performance.

Self-affirmations are shown to weaken the threat to the personal integrity and boost confidence. Affirmations can also improve performance in education. (R)

It has been shown that successful, confident athletes have self-esteem enhancing beliefs; they assign their success to their internal factors like personal strength, power, and confidence (R).

In addition, most successful entrepreneurs are actually over-confident. (R)

No-one likes to brag or be egoistic, but affirmations ddonot mean you are trying to show off. This has nothing to do with showing anything to other people. You are simplistic practicing self-love and self-confidence. And doing this before the exam can actually move your negative mindset to positive. By shifting the valence of your emotional state by increasing trust to your own talent, you can improve your performance.

This can be done by giving yourself compliments in front of the mirror out loud or inside your head.

 

Two-dimensional-valence-arousal-space

 

If you can not figure out anything try some guided meditations from Youtube, like:

 

 

 

 

5. Use memory technique that actually works – the encoding specificity principle

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The final practical and a very effective tip is using the encoding specificity principle, which is simple; when you are in the exam situation, instead of solely trying to memorize the information, also memorize the place you learned the information in as accurately as possible. Memorize the teachers that you listened and their voice. Memorize or the book you read and how you were sitting and how did you take notes. Try to smell any smells linked to that event or if you listened to some music, try to hear that in your head. (R)

And why to do this? The reason is powerful. It all starts with the very well known law of Donald Hebb, called the Hebb’s rule; the neurons that fire together wire together (R)

This means that when we learn something, there are many neural connections linked to that same situation. The neural connections not only include the information per se, but also the visual, auditory, visceral and olfactory cues; the room, the sounds, smell and your emotions. This is actually all information, different sensory stimuli, that will fire the neurons in your body and brain. The more times you repeat the same information in the same situations, the more integrated and strengthen the information from the senses will be in the brain.

You can increase the likelihood of retrieving (remembering) relevant information if you can find efficient cues that are “painted” to your brain. This sensory information came from all of your senses and your internal organs inside your body when you were learning the semantics (the verbal information and ideas you had to learn for the exam). Neither of these information works in a vacuum; since you practiced them, the sensory information and the semantics, together, they will also activate the same neural pathways if you only memorize only either one of them. This is called the encoding specificity. (R) Sometimes if you don’t remember something, you have actually not forgotten it, you just struggle to find the cue; try to find it by activating other neural pathways linked to the same situation.

In an interesting memory experiment, 18 scuba divers learned information both underwater and in the land. The information learned underwater was also better recalled underwater and information learned land were remembered better on land. (R)

 

References:

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  4. Cohen, R. A. (2011). Yerkes–Dodson Law. In Encyclopedia of Clinical Neuropsychology (pp. 2737–2738). Springer, New York, NY. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-0-387-79948-3_1340
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  9. Kok, B. E., Coffey, K. A., Cohn, M. A., Catalino, L. I., Vacharkulksemsuk, T., Algoe, S. B., … Fredrickson, B. L. (2013). How positive emotions build physical health: perceived positive social connections account for the upward spiral between positive emotions and vagal tone. Psychological Science, 24(7), 1123–1132. https://doi.org/10.1177/0956797612470827
  10. Park, G., & Thayer, J. F. (2014). From the heart to the mind: cardiac vagal tone modulates top-down and bottom-up visual perception and attention to emotional stimuli. Frontiers in Psychology, 5, 278. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2014.00278
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Author: Inka Immonen

Science blogger, yoga teacher, biohacker and a psychology student at the University of Aberdeen; upgrading mind and body health with fitness, nutrition, and mindfulness

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