Stress has an alarming ability to infiltrate all aspects of everyday life. It can strike unexpectedly, often causing people to subconsciously react in ways that are quite out of proportion to their situation.
The overwhelming workload involved in studying is usually cited as a prime cause of stress, particularly for high level, professional qualifications.
For example, studying to become a Chartered Financial Analyst (CFA) is a course that consists of 3 levels that are usually completed over four years typically. The course itself can often be stressful as it usually has to be undertaken in conjunction with full time work experience. On top of this, the CFA exams are widely considered to be some of the hardest in the world.
If stress is not managed correctly during such a full daily schedule, the intense studying can produce disastrous results. It can literally ruin your concentration and spoil your prospects of ever gaining that coveted qualification, which is perhaps why stress and anxiety have been found to have the biggest negative impact on academic performance. Even more disturbing, uncontrolled stress can have serious long-term consequences for your health and mental wellbeing.
So whether you’re thinking about studying for a qualification, or are stressing out about upcoming exams, this article is here to help. It investigates stress, its warning signs, and concrete ways to manage stress to achieve a sense of balance.
What is stress and what causes it?
Stress is the nervous system’s reaction to what is perceived as an external threat. It prompts the classic ‘fight or flight’ impulse, something that was once our distant ancestors’ only means of survival.
Stress is an important evolutionary component that helps us deal with perceived threats. It is helpful when we find ourselves in circumstances that could result in injury or death, such as when confronting dangerous animals or hiking dangerous routes in the wilderness.
However, much of today’s stress is an adverse reaction to situations that shouldn’t be considered life-threatening. Nevertheless, the body responds in a similar way when it encounters a trigger such as a seemingly overwhelming amount of work, or the reality of a fast approaching, and potentially very difficult exam. This means the pressures of studying can still create a real sense of anxiety.
Scientific reality of stress
Stress begins in the amygdala, a nerve receptor buried deep in the lower section of the brain. It immediately sends a message of alarm to the hypothalamus, located near the top of the spinal cord. This in turn sends signals through the body to systems that control functions such as breathing and heart rate.
It also authorizes the release of adrenaline and cortisol, the main survival hormones. Cortisol increases the amount of glucose in the bloodstream, providing the energy for adrenaline’s impulsive choice of ‘fight or flight’.
According to mental health charity Mind, there are two types of stress; acute and chronic. The first is relatively transitory, often lasting a few hours or days. An example could be a sense of nervousness when waiting to start an exam paper. This adrenaline release can be beneficial as it helps you perform at your best.
However, it’s important to control stress from the beginning to prevent it becoming chronic, which can have adverse long-term effects. Adrenaline, and the related neural chemicals norepinephrine and epinephrine, have the potential for becoming addictive.
This can lead to further complications in avoiding its consequences, as an unconscious need for stimulation can affect an individual’s behaviour and result in them seeking out or creating scenarios that will trigger a stress response.
Dangers of overdosing on adrenaline
Adrenaline contributes to the enjoyment of thrilling, active pastimes such as bungee jumping. When becoming anxious over studying, a sedentary occupation, the body produces too much unnecessary, unused adrenaline.
However, the hormone still needs to carry out its ‘fight or flight’ role. In desperation, it usually turns on the body’s own nervous system, resulting in a wide range of medical symptoms.
Symptoms of stress
When studying hard for a crucial qualification, the intensity of constant learning and revision can often lead to an overdose of adrenaline circulating in the bloodstream. The immediate result is usually a minor symptom such as a headache.
However, some individuals may remain anxious throughout a lengthy course, and serious long-term complaints such as high blood pressure or diabetes may emerge in later years.
Feeling out of breath
Stress often begins with shortness of breath. Some students feel breathlessly anxious about their studies and compensate by taking deep breaths in rapid succession. Known as hyperventilation, it frequently causes an imbalance in the ratio of carbon dioxide and oxygen in the blood.
When carbon dioxide levels fall too low, the blood vessels narrow, restricting the flow of blood. In some instances, the fingers might tingle and there is often dizziness or feeling lightheaded. Short bursts of hyperventilation can result in a headache, but prolonged bouts of up to 30 minutes may cause you to faint.
Breathlessness interferes with the smooth running of the lungs and circulation, often resulting in the heart beating much faster than normal. It may feel as though it misses a beat, has an irregular rhythm, known as atrial fibrillation, or appears to be beating with far more strength than usual.
Most stress or anxiety related heart palpitations usually disappear after a short while, but if they continue long-term, they may contribute to panic attacks or high blood pressure. A serious consequence is being five times more likely to suffer a stroke.
When feeling stressed by the pressures of studying, the muscles in the stomach often tighten. This can lead to a variety of uncomfortable minor disorders such as belching or a fluttering, butterflies sensation. It can also cause acid reflux, alternatively known as indigestion or heartburn.
Acid reflux is often painful with a burning sensation in the chest. It’s caused through the tightened stomach muscles forcing digestive acids to reverse back up through the oesophagus. Stomach acids are powerful substances that can irritate the lining of the digestive tract allowing ulcers to form.
Bouts of both acute and chronic stress can prompt the different types of bacteria that naturally live in the intestines to multiply out of control. When they reach a critical level, the result is often irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). In some instances, once such a sensitivity has developed, it can be very difficult to completely eradicate it.
Anxiety or stress often encourages the brain to send chemical messengers to the skin, the largest organ of the entire body. Skin is highly sensitive due to masses of nerve endings and receptors that react to external factors such as temperature and touch.
The outer epidermal layer continuously renews every twenty-seven days. It’s a complex structure that can easily be affected by stress, resulting in red, itchy and scaly skin conditions such as psoriasis and eczema.
Once established, such skin conditions often have a domino effect travelling to the next skin cells along until the inflammation covers large areas.
Skin problems can be difficult to treat, often resulting in years of trial and error to find a medication that suits an individual. Skin sensitivity frequently prevents the use of cosmetics and hair dyes. In some cases, there can be a genetic predisposition towards skin complaints, which would have remained dormant if stress hadn’t awakened them.
Stress, and chronic stress in particular, can be debilitating, causing lethargy and fatigue. When studying in depth, your mind can still be reviewing various aspects of your course, preventing you from falling asleep.
Insomnia covers a range of sleep problems including waking up several times during the night. Although the immediate effect of a sleepless night is impaired concentration, there are more serious consequences for general health and wellbeing.
It is during good quality sleep, consisting of up to five different cycles, that the body’s systems relax, coordinate and begin to repair themselves. If the overall twenty-four-hour circadian rhythm is consistently interrupted, the body’s restorative mechanisms won’t function at their maximum level.
One result could be muscle fatigue where there is a noticeable loss of tone and strength. Lack of sleep can also contribute to digestive problems, skin complaints, depression, and poor cognitive function.
How to manage stress
The symptoms of acute and chronic stress can make daily life difficult, particularly when you need to study intensively for professional qualifications. Uncontrolled stress can impact on your general health far beyond the immediate future, putting you at risk of a catalogue of health problems.
Everyone occasionally suffers a certain amount of acute stress, but learning how to successfully manage recurring or chronic anxiety is vital. Controlling stress helps you meet the challenges ahead with determination and enthusiasm.
Here are a few ways to manage stress with some lifestyle changes and simple swaps.
1. Planning your studies
CFA candidates need to meet the minimum entry requirements to enrol for CFA Level 1. The majority of applicants study during their spare time following a full day’s work, which leaves very little room for a life beyond work and study.
It is a challenging situation, but students persevere regardless for the reward of gaining one of the most influential qualifications in finance.
However, by being efficiently organized, it should be possible to limit the stressful effects of struggling to complete assignments. Anxiety usually increases when the situation appears to be out of control.
Making a detailed study plan when following a course is always beneficial in the fight against stress. It helps break down an overwhelming amount of essays, facts and sub topics into manageable portions. However, research conducted by Professor Alejandro Lleras of the University of Illinois outlines the benefits of taking regular breaks while studying.
The professor’s concentration experiment revealed that some students took a short break of around 5 minutes every hour. As the day wore on, they retained more information and enthusiasm for their task than those who continually studied without pausing at all.
The explanation was that over a relatively short time, the brain gradually becomes unresponsive to what it is dealing with. Taking regular breaks helps beat the stress produced by ineffective studying by giving the brain a chance to relax.
Factoring in short breaks of up to 15 minutes for every two hours of study should help keep your concentration levels maintain their sharpness.
It’s also important to remember that studying is not something you need to face alone. You might have friends or colleagues who are undertaking similar study regimes that you can talk with, and we’d always recommend getting involved with our forum. Here you can discuss anything that’s making you feel stressed with others who might be in a similar situation, get help with topics you’re unsure about, buddy up with other candidates and lots more.
As well as talking to your peers, sometimes it pays to get extra help with your studies. There are plenty of great CFA study materials available from leading prep providers, which can help alleviate some of the stress of preparing for exams. These courses are designed specifically to guide you through the study process and cover everything you need to know in order to pass with flying colours.
The brain requires twice as much fuel to function correctly as any other part of the body. Missing meals and feeling hungry can be stressful in itself and eventually lead to feeling unwell. Hunger also has a negative effect on concentration particularly while studying.
However, simply filling up with junk food won’t provide the essential nutrients you need to combat the stress of intense studying within a restricted work schedule. A key solution to halting the effects of anxiety is to eat foods that are effective against stress. Ideally they should contain vitamin B compounds such as niacin, riboflavin and thiamin.
You’ll find them in green leafy vegetables, fruit, dairy produce and yeast extract. Omega-3 in oily fish and Brussels sprouts helps improve concentration and memory retention.
Anyone who studies while following vegan principles needs to be particularly mindful of eating healthy foods containing a wide range of vitamins and minerals. Haphazard, rushed mealtimes usually contribute to indigestion, which as outlined above can cause serious long-term health problems.
When studying late at night, it’s important to eat foods that are easy to digest. Some of the most suitable include bananas, rice and scrambled eggs.
An unfortunate side effect of stress incurred through studying far into the night is a craving for sweet foods and coffee to keep you awake. However, these are the two most perilous foods to consume in this situation.
Excess sugar provides a fast rush of glucose into the bloodstream providing a temporary surge of energy. The level drops just as quickly leaving you feeling more lethargic than before. Opt instead for fruit containing natural glucose that releases at a slower rate.
Coffee generally has up to 90 milligrams of caffeine per cup. Like sugar, it’s an addictive substance that can distract you from your studies. Even more detrimental is the effect caffeine may have on health as it can raise blood pressure, increase headaches and encourage irritability. Even worse, it can prevent you from enjoying a good night’s sleep, an essential requirement of successful studying.
Regular exercise can be one of the most effective methods of relieving stress at any time. Physical activity increases the rate of blood flow, resulting in more oxygen being transported around the body by the red blood cells.
As the blood moves through the inner depths of the brain, it stimulates your grey matter to release a cocktail of hormones, including endorphins and serotonin. These two hormones are famous for producing feelings of pleasure and contentment. They are acknowledged as decisive antidotes to stress, depression and mental health.
Exercise falls into two main categories; aerobic and anaerobic. The former describes a fairly strenuous activity such as walking, jogging and swimming that makes you feel slightly out of breath. Aerobic exercise helps improve the efficiency of the cardiovascular system that consists of the heart and blood vessels.
Anaerobic exercise refers to activities that the body cannot complete with oxygen intake alone, such as High-Intensity Interval Training (HIIT). It includes lifting weights and practising yoga. Many people indulge in anaerobic exercises to improve their general fitness, build muscle tone and increase stamina.
When organizing your study schedule, it’s important to include time for at least 150 minutes of exercise distributed throughout the week. Whichever form of exercise you choose, it has been shown to be a great way to manage stress and anxiety.
Exercise also often brings opportunities for socialising and making new friends at a local gym, parkrun or sports club which is another important factor in alleviating stress. Alternatively, activities such as yoga can be practised in privacy at home, while if running is your thing it may be worth investing in a treadmill that can be used when poor weather prevents you from going out.
When you exercise as part of your studying routine, the beneficial effects include increased oxygen, which sharpens your concentration while relieving stress and helping you to relax. Exercise can also make you feel physically tired, a healthy part of being able to fall asleep quickly. It should help contribute towards feeling refreshed and ready for the challenges of a new day of work and study.
4. Restful sleep
An important factor in stress management is making sure you have enough sleep. Adults who sleep for around 8 hours each night have been shown to feel relatively relaxed and in control of their daily lives, while a lack of sleep can lead to a range of consequences including a negative impact on mood and anxiety.
Being disorganized often leads to studying until the early hours. This deprives you of vital sleep, which can impact on how alert you may be the following day. Without sufficient sleep for the body’s systems to realign themselves, they place themselves in a state of distress. This encourages the brain to compensate by releasing additional cortisol to supply emergency energy in the form of glucose. In some instances, too much cortisol may even contribute to unexpected weight gain.
Sleep deprivation or insomnia can interfere with the immune system by not providing it with enough time to strengthen itself. A nutritious diet of vitamin C enriched fruit and vegetables helps alleviate the problem.
This is important, because when the immune system isn’t operating as efficiently as it should, you can fall prey to common colds, bacterial infections and genetic conditions such as skin problems. Feeling unwell means you might not be inclined to study or stick to your study plan, which in turn can make you feel even more stressed because you feel like you’re not making enough progress.
However, a frequent complaint of stress-related sleep deprivation is problems with eyesight such as eyestrain. One sign of not having enough sleep is a condition called myokymia. It causes the muscles in the eyelids to twitch in uncontrollable spasms. It can be averted by having at least six undisturbed hours of sleep every night.
To encourage a restful sleep, invest in a comfortable mattress topper, cosy brushed cotton sheets and a supportive pillow. Maintain an ambient temperature that’s relatively cool and line curtains to ensure street lamps can’t disturb your rest.
Avoid caffeine for at least six hours before going to bed, and most importantly, banish all electronic gadgets from the bedroom. Finally, maintain a regular sleep time that’s sympathetic to your study schedule and your internal circadian rhythm.
5. Time for relaxation
When studying for a professional qualification, the regime of learning obviously has to be strict to reach the recommended targets on time. However, by creating a practical schedule for daily study, the pace can be more sensibly measured.
It’s important to incorporate regular breaks that include high-quality relaxation. Although individual temperaments and energy levels influence the amount of time spent away from studies, everyone benefits from an occasional extended break.
Significant time away from studying is a release from a source of stress. An evening spent on a favourite pastime such as listening to music or going out to dinner may seem like time wasted, but research shows it’s actually well spent. Relaxation provides the brain and nervous system with valuable time to recuperate leading to renewed enthusiasm for further studying.
Research carried out by Exeter University revealed the importance of spending time in nature for relieving stress, as part of maintaining good overall health and wellbeing. The stress levels of 20,000 people were analyzed before and after they spent just two hours each week amongst natural surroundings such as woodlands or a local park. The research concluded that people felt more relaxed and psychologically happier every time a green space was visited.
Incorporate nature into a study area by following biophilia, the science of integrating nature with daily life. If you don’t have time to spend a couple of hours in nature each week then there are other things you can do to bring nature closer to you. Even a few houseplants around your desk can lift your mood.
6. Mindfulness meditation
Stress of some sort has been experienced by people since time began. Coincidentally, the relaxation technique of meditation, so often associated with religion, developed thousands of years ago, undoubtedly to combat the stresses of everyday life.
Today, mindfulness meditation has become one of the most popular methods of counteracting anxiety, particularly amongst students, and has been shown to have a mild to moderate positive impact on the effects of issues such as stress and anxiety.
It’s incredibly easy to do and can take as little or as much time as you can spare. It involves sitting comfortably before concentrating on your breathing, making it steady, deep and unhurried.
Then you simply force yourself to be aware of your surroundings in the present moment while blocking out all thoughts of the past and future. Even a few minutes should be enough to introduce some calm into a busy schedule of study and release the tension of accumulated stress.
The UK’s National Health Service (NHS) has confidence in the value of mindfulness meditation and offers it as a therapy to help combat depression. Dr Julieta Galant of Cambridge University recently conducted research into the effectiveness of this method. More than 11,000 people up to the age of 73 took part in reporting the effects of practising the technique.
Dr Galant concluded that mindfulness meditation appeared to have a role in reducing stress, but its success was largely dependent on the individual. The research also showed that mindfulness meditation may be more effective when integrated with other relaxation methods such as taking regular exercise.
Don’t underestimate the importance of stress management
Studying can easily incur stress that has the potential to spiral out of control.
Symptoms such as fatigue and indigestion are early signs of stress caused through an imbalance of adrenaline and other elements within the body. If allowed to continue, they can eventually lead to serious health complaints.
Taking positive measures such as compiling a study plan, healthy eating and enjoying restful sleep, contribute to significantly reducing stress levels.
The causes, symptoms and remedies of stress are interconnected amongst themselves and with the body’s complex systems. Successful stress management is therefore more effective when it incorporates as many methods as possible to reduce it.
Managing stress while studying should help you gain a much sought after professional qualification such as the CFA charter. However, the success of the methods you choose is a practice that should help you control stress not only for now, but for the rest of your life.
So make time for relaxation, think about introducing stress relieving activities into your schedule before you feel like you need them, and above all, look after yourself!
I hope you found the above tips helpful in identifying, managing and reducing stress in your everyday life. We are always here lending an ear (or two!) if you need help.
Meanwhile, you may find these related articles of interest:
- 4 Powerful Ways to Manage Exam Anxiety Properly
- Useful Sleep Facts: Here’s All You Need To Know
- How to Sleep Better: 12 Surefire Ways to Improve Your Sleep Now
- Study Burnout: How to Recognize, Cure and Prevent Them
- 15 Natural Brain Foods for Studying and Exams
- 4 Solid Ways How Exercising Improves Exam Performance
- 8 Easy Tips on How To Manage Study With Full Time Job
- How To Focus When Studying, Even When You’re Tired
- Productive Habits: A 7-Step Plan To Building Effective Routines