A little anxiety before exams is natural and is essential for peak performance, but if it’s making you restless and lose concentration, you need active de-stressing to calm the mind.
Exams disrupt routine is every way imaginable – you study when you should be sleeping, go online when you should be studying, sleep when you should be out with friends, and overdose on caffeine and crisps through the day cooped up at home.
This neglect doesn’t just affect your body – most students in India gain 5-10 kg in the two years leading to Board exams – but also exhausts the brain and lowers its capacity to learn and recall.
Apart from six to seven hours of restful sleep to consolidate memory, your brain needs a regular dose of fresh air and nutrition to help recall and surf the waves of exam anxiety. The brain’s a greedy little organ, using up to 20% of the oxygen and calories consumed by the body even though it accounts for about 2% of your body weight. If you stay indoors hunched over a textbook or laptop all say, your posture will lower lung capacity and low blood oxygen levels, which will make you muddled and forgetful.
Feeding the mind
Several studies reiterate how nutrition helps optimise brain power. Even temporary nutritional deficits damage brain cells and lower the efficiency with which neurotransmitters carry messages in the brain. Most students end up eating comfort food full of bad oils and calories while studying and this, coupled with little or no physical activity, hurts their body and mind.
Eating foods rich in antioxidants such as vitamins A, E and C reduces cell damage caused by the byproducts of metabolism called free radicals. Fresh sources of vitamin A are carrots, broccoli, nuts, roasted seeds and gram, Vitamin C is found in citrus fruits such as oranges, lime and lemon, while vitamin E is found peanuts, treenuts, seeds, spinach, vegetable oils, wheatgerm. Spinach is an antioxidant powerhouse with beta carotene, vitamin C and folic acids, all of which help transport nerve impulses in the brain more efficiently.
Iron-deficiency anaemia – <12.5 gm/dl haemoglobin, which is the oxygen-carrying, iron-containing protein in red blood cells – lowers oxygen supply to the brain, so including iron-rich foods such as leafy vegetables, lentils, beans, fish, poultry and red meat becomes a must. If you’re iron-deficit, and at least one in three adolescent girls is likely to be anaemic, consider taking supplements of iron, vitamin B12 and folate.
Omega-3 fatty acids found in fish such as salmon and tuna, flaxseed, kiwi fruit, and walnuts improve brain function, though they do not slow memory loss in older adults.
Flavonoids in cocoa, green tea, citrus fruits, dark chocolate, and anthocyanins in strawberries, grapes, red cabbage and plums improves the brain’s neural response to chemical messengers and improves blood flow by lowering the formation of blood clots.
Vitamins B6 and B12 and folate (whole cereals, chicken, fish, eggs, soyabeans, peanuts, milk, potatoes) are essential to rid the body of homocysteine, a dangerous amino acid that in high levels has been linked with brain-cell death that causes memory and concentration problems in older adults.
Yoga and deep breathing help you relax, but these are not enough to bust stress. You need at least 45 minutes of aerobic exercise to get your heart rate up to improve both mood and memory.
What not to do
Avoid large meals. Eating small, frequent and healthy meals keeps your weight in check and helps to lower digestive stress, which makes you sluggish and sleepy.
Cut back on saturated fats found in coconut oil, palm oil, butter, ghee, cream, cheese and meats as they form free radicals that injure brain cells and make the brain sluggish. Instead, opt for food cooked in canola, sunflower, corn or olive oil, all of which are high in healthy unsaturated fats.
This is not the time for dieting and fasting. Nutritional deficiencies not just lower memory but also cause anxiety and depression, so shun fad diets and replace fasting with other less harmful ways to appease the gods.
Do not give up on things you like to do. For most students, the simplest way to bust stress is taking time out to do the things they love to do, be it music, watching films, hanging out with friends or playing with pets. If all else fails, take a hot shower and curl up in bed and think happy thoughts to give your mind a break from textbooks.