How to Manage Your Stress for Better Learning

Have you ever felt so stressed you’re too overwhelmed to work?

You feel anxious, unable to focus, unable to learn or retain anything, and this just feeds into the anxiety.

Your stress magnifies, and you almost blank out, unable to do what you need to do.

Thankfully, there are some science-backed tools you can use to manage your stress for better learning.

First, you need to understand that some degree of stress is actually not a bad thing.

If you’re totally relaxed, totally calm, you might not have the degree of alertness and motivation you need to learn.

How to Manage Your Stress for Better Learning

Mild degrees of acute (short-term) stress look like this:

You’re alert, and your brain and body gear up for action. You feel ready to go, and you’re keenly focused on the task at hand.

Under the right conditions, you might even enjoy the process of the effort you’re putting in.

This happens because of the work of certain neurochemicals in your system.

Adrenaline, or epinephrine, puts you into action mode. It prepares your body to be extremely alert and ready to respond to what you’re learning.

It also stimulates acetylcholine, which helps narrow your focus. Rather than getting distracted, your brain effectively filters out unnecessary information.

You get a bit of tunnel vision by sort of zooming in, like a camera, to what you’re learning.

As these two chemicals work their magic, any progress you make triggers dopamine.

This is your motivation molecule, and as your brain anticipates and experiences reward, it circulates your system.

Dopamine is why you might find the actual work enjoyable instead of just pushing yourself to meet a goal.

It’s also what gives you the drive to continue, because you brain anticipates that sense of reward.

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It’s when acute stress turns into chronic stress that this becomes harmful, though.

If you become so activated that all these systems are dialled up to eleven, you’ll be too stressed.

Not only will you be less productive, less able to learn and remember, you’ll also damage your health.

Here are some tools you can use to manage your stress for better learning.

Table of Contents

1. Raise Your Stress Threshold

2. Use Physiological Sighs

3. Maintain Social Connection

4. Get Proper Sleep

How to Manage Your Stress for Better Learning

1. Raise Your Stress Threshold

How to Manage Your Stress for Better LearningWhat this involves is taking control of your stress response, by separating your mind and body.

This sounds complicated, but it essentially means that you want to distance your mind from your body’s stress response.

Instead of letting your cognitive functioning get overwhelmed because of stress, you want to leverage your stress response deliberately.

Dr. Andrew Huberman, a neurobiologist at Stanford University, suggests a simple way of doing this.

When you’re stressed, your pupils dilate. And a simple way of dissociating your mind from your body’s stress response is to look around.

Yes – by looking around, and taking in more of your environment, you break out of stress-induced tunnel vision.

When you intentionally do this, it activates a pathway in your nervous system that keeps you alert, yet calm.

Instead of becoming overwhelmed because of stress, you’re able to perceive it as manageable.

This is because by doing this eye exercise, you separate your mind and your body’s response to stress.

You’re better able to use the high state of alertness, focus, and motivation towards self-directed purposes.

Doing this once a week can help you take control of stressful situations whenever you need to, without getting overwhelmed.

2. Use Physiological Sighs

How to Manage Your Stress for Better LearningThis is one of the most direct and effective methods of breaking out of a stress response.

When you’re stressed, the air pockets in your lungs, your alveoli, collapse.

As a result, carbon dioxide builds up in your bloodstream – this can make you more stressed and anxious.

Physiological sighs – where you deliberately follow a pattern of inhales and exhales – pop those alveoli back open!

In fact, you’re constantly sighing multiple times throughout the day, even when you don’t realize it.

Deliberately using physiological sighs includes breathing in, through your nose, deeply, once, and then taking a short second “top-up” breath.

Then, breathe out deeply through your mouth.

Doing this a couple of times pops your alveoli open and helps offload the built-up carbon dioxide in your bloodstream.

Just a couple of physiological sighs later you’ll realize how much calmer yet alert you feel!

3. Maintain Social Connection

How to Manage Your Stress for Better LearningThis might sound like unscientific advice, but there’s actually strong scientific evidence indicating the importance of social connection.

Plenty of scientific literature highlights how being with your loved ones and spending time with them boosts serotonin.

And serotonin is a neurochemical that creates a sense of contentment and calm. You experience a sense of bliss and comfort – the opposite of stress.

On the other hand, social isolation kicks off an increase in the molecule tachykinin.

And this molecule is bad news for your stress because it amplifies feelings of fear and paranoia. It can also damage your immune system.

A simple phone conversation with a loved one, spending some time with your pet, etc. can all boost serotonin.

So, do make quality time with your friends, family, colleagues, pets, and so on a priority!

4. Get Proper Sleep

How to Manage Your Stress for Better LearningNot getting enough sleep can be a reason your short-term stress becomes a long-term problem.

Studies show that poor REM (Rapid Eye Movement) sleep tends to increase the size of the amygdalae in your brain.

These almond-sized nuclei regulate your memory and mood, managing emotions like anxiety, fear, and stress.

So, people who don’t get enough quality sleep tend to feel reactive to events and experiences from the day before.

Meanwhile, even one night without sleep can lead to a build-up of a waste product in your amygdalae as well as other parts of your brain.

You’ll tend to feel moodier, and less able to focus, learn or remember. This will likely feed into your feelings of stress and anxiety.

So, what can you do to get better sleep?

How to Set Your Sleep Timer

How to Manage Your Stress for Better LearningYour sleep schedule is sensitive to a lot of things, but one of the most important things is light.

Your body naturally syncs with day-night cycles, but because of artificial light, this cycle may fall out of sync.

So, here’s what you do.

Wake up early and get some early morning sunlight into your eyes. Cells in your retina detect this specific blue-yellow light contrast and send off signals to your circadian clock.

It in turn sets off the release of the hormone cortisol. You might know this as the “stress hormone” – and in higher doses it does induce stress.

However, this morning light exposure triggers healthy pulses of cortisol. This lets the rest of your body know it’s time to wake up.

The cortisol release also sets the timer for your sleep hormone, melatonin, to release some 12-16 hours later!

But here’s the catch.

Your retinal cells grow more sensitive to light throughout the day. Artificial bright lights after dark can throw this wakefulness-sleep clock out of loop.

Artificial blue light especially suppresses melatonin, so this can push your sleep back by several hours after dark.

What Can You Do to Combat Bright Lights at Night?

How to Manage Your Stress for Better LearningJust as getting sunlight at dawn is great for you, so is getting sunlight at dusk!

Light at sunset helps reduce your eyes sensitivity a bit, so spending some time on Netflix won’t leave you sleepless.

However, since bright lights can not only hurt your sleep but also your dopamine levels, you’ll need to take precautions.

If you absolutely can’t turn off your blue light emitting devices after dark, use blue blockers. You can get photochromatic lenses for your glasses, and blue light filtering protective device screens.

Also opt for dimmer lights in your home and surroundings. Orange- and red-tinted dim lights can help eliminate blue light in your environment.

And lights closer to the ground are better than overhead lights, which might activate your sunlight-detecting retinal cells!

With these science-backed tips, you now know how to manage your stress for better learning!

For more on how you can use healthy levels of stress to your advantage, read on here.

Pat Wyman is the CEO of HowtoLearn.com, HowtoLearn.Teachable.com, best selling author and an internationally noted brain and learning coach known as America’s Most Trusted Learning Expert.

Pat’s superpower is helping people learn, read and remember everything faster. She has helped over half a million people in schools and corporations such as Microsoft, Intel and Google improve their lives with her learning strategies, learning styles inventory and courses, including Total Recall Learning™.

She is the best-selling author of more than 15 books, a university instructor, mom and golden retriever lover!

Contact Pat to find out more about the Brain 2.0 Brain Advantage Learning and Career Assessment and customized faster learning programs for professionals and students.