Tag Archives: stress

How to Chillax

Have you ever been so stressed in a situation that you don’t even know how to function? You walk into a stressful situation having a game plan, but then you freeze and the plan goes down the drain. I’m sure we’ve all been there.

I read an article by Psychology Today that discussed Dr. Charles A. Morgan of Yale Medical School and his research on the people who encounter possibly the most stressful situations possible: the Army Special Forces. The soldiers he researched were participating in mock prisoner-of-war camps as part of their survival training. In the training, soldiers were exposed to extremely realistic simulations in which they experienced the fear, anger, and adrenaline rush of real combat. Morgan measured a chemical in the soldiers’ brains called neuropeptide Y (NPY) that regulates blood pressure and works as a tranquilizer in the brain to control anxiety and break down the effects of stress hormones, such as adrenaline (epinephrine). NPY is also responsible for regulating alarm and fear responses. He found that soldiers in the survival training of the Special Forces had significantly greater levels of NPY in their brains than regular troops, allowing them to feel less anxiety and fear. As well as having more NPY in their systems, the Special Forces troops showed the ability to return to regular levels of NPY less than 24 hours after the simulations, rather than the regular troops who took longer to return back to normal.

Why did the simulation seem to have so much of an effect on the Special Forces? The answer is a topic we learned about in class: state-dependent learning. “State-dependent learning is a phenomenon in which the retrieval of information is better if the subject is in the same sensory context and physiological state as during the encoding phase” (Shulz, Sosnik, Ego, Haidarliu, & Ahissar, 2000). Because the special forces had previously been put into the stressful situation of simulated combat, they were able to perform better and remain focused under such stressful circumstances. Essentially, state dependent learning is like practice for your brain. Although putting yourself in stressful situations or experiencing adrenaline rushes does not sound enjoyable to all, it will allow you to make clearer decisions and react effectively in real situations in which your stress levels are high, rather than letting the adrenaline shut you down. When we experience big adrenaline rushes, we typically drop our “game plans” as said before and focus on “fight or flight”.

This is where the adrenaline junkies in the classroom will be happy! Seeking out adrenaline rushes has shown to be effective in allowing for better brain processing and decision making in times of intense stress or fear. Now I’m not saying that you should start putting yourself in danger, but things like skydiving, bungee jumping, making a big speech, or riding a roller coaster– all things I know I’m not fond of– would give you experience in dealing with adrenaline rushes so if, God forbid, you were ever in a life or death situation or even something that is just personally stressful to you, you will more easily be able to stay calm and be rational. The article I read also gave tips as to how to stay as calm as possible when seeking out adrenaline rushes:

    1. Breathe deeply in and out through your nose. Do not hyperventilate or hold your breath,
    2. Exercise your peripheral vision – be aware of your surroundings,
    3. Listen to the sounds around you and hear what people are saying,
    4. Try to perform the task a correctly as possible,
    5. Calm yourself down afterward
    6. Focus on what you accomplished and what you can improve

Do it again. Have more fun and less anxiety.

Good luck, but be safe! It’ll just get easier with time! May the odds be ever in your favor.


Feeling Down? Head to the Gym!

brain-on-exerciseWouldn’t it be nice if there was a guaranteed method to alleviate depression, improve memory, de-stress, focus, and stick to your goals? It sounds like a cognitive miracle, doesn’t it? Research has shown that exercise can do just that. This article in Women’s Health Magazine lists these five outcomes as the direct result of exercise. The article claims that increased exercise results in increased blood flow to the brain; this apparently helps cognition, memory, and stress levels. The article cites several medical and psychological studies to support its assertions, which is certainly pretty convincing.

First, the article asserts that exercise alleviates depression. Besides the experiment cited in the article, I found research, including the following study, that supports this assertion. The study states that changes in baseline physical activity levels were associated with changes in mental health. The relationship was strong in the between person conditions, but not as strong in the within person conditions. This likely indicates that depression and mental health are not solely dependent on activity levels, but are more holistically affected. However, the relationship did exist in both conditions.

The article next contends that exercise can help us de-stress. The above study on “mental health” included anxiety as well as depression. The study found that changes in exercise levels certainly related to changes in anxiety. Another study  found similar results: those who participated in Qigong exercise reported significantly lower levels of anxiety after a session of exercise.

The article also states that memory is improved by engaging in exercise. Many studies have shown this to be true of both rats and humans; in particular, a study of rats round that exercise facilitated memory acquisition, memory retention, and reversal learning. All three of these demonstrations of memory were improved after rats exercised regularly.

The last claim in the article is that exercise helps with attentional focus and sticking to goals, because exercise is often unpleasant and laborious and requires significant commitment, focus, and organization in order to go through with it successfully. This was a much more difficult assertion to validate with research. It assumes several steps of relation — first, that those who exercise do so with successful focus and perseverance. Second, it assumes that they are then able and willing to apply those skills to other situations, outside of their exercise habits. If both of these premises are true, then it might follow that the individuals who learn how to focus and persevere due to exercise then tend to demonstrate these abilities in other aspects of their lives. If that is the case, it seems inaccurate to me to attribute these outcomes directly to the exercise, but rather to simple learning.

Overall, I think the article that I found, though found a more of a mainstream popular culture magazine, was fairly accurate and well-researched in its claims regarding the cognitive benefits of exercise. The article was rather brief in its descriptions of the studies involved and the potential outcomes, but linked out to other articles providing further information on each claim, which I thought was very helpful.

I find this topic fascinating — I always feel like a better version of myself when I’ve been exercising regularly. My mood and overall sharpness seem higher. I find myself wondering if there are other benefits to exercising. Other studies have found that exercise may improve our ability to think creatively.  Do any of you find this to be true for you? What other cognitive benefits do you see in your life when you exercise regularly?

Chronic stress and memory loss

When it comes to memory loss we often think of diseases like Alzheimer’s or traumatic brain injuries. As college students, we don’t think of the reasons as to why we forget our books in our cars or why that assignment slipped out minds. We simply put it to being absent minded or the fact that we have other things going on that distract us.  Stress isn’t the first thing that comes to mind when as a reason we forget things. However a recent study done in 2010 suggests that it may be the cause.

The study, A critical review of chronic stress effects on spatial learning and memory by Cheryl Conrad suggests that chronic stress vs. acute or high-levels of stress actually reduce spatial memory.  We have been learning recently about spatial memory, which is in charge of being familiar with our environment. We need our spatial memory to find our way around campus, We also need it for our spatial working memory to temporarily keep information while we take a test or work on an assignment. These qualities are extremely important in the daily lives of college students.

Researchers at the University of Iowa found the connection between the hormone found in stress-cortisol and short-term memory with rats. The amount of cortisol reduced the number of synaptic connections made in the pre-frontal cortex reducing the success of short-term memory.

There is a difference between long-term memory and stress. If the stress is acute or high such as experiencing an earthquake or getting into a car accident, your memory is actually improved and the ability to recall these events are easier because they are stored in the area responsible for survival. Low levels of chronic stress or anxiety can alter the brain and cause damage to memory. White matter in the brain is increases with stress, this is good for sending signals such as messages across the brain but reduces neurons that are in charge of information processing. This is shown in research on PTSD patients with increased white matter and long-term stress.

Researchers at Berkley suggest that the effects of long-term stress and anxiety in the younger generation may be the cause for mood disorders, learning disabilities and anxiety. From this I think we can all take the suggestions to reduce stress in our lives and manage a healthy balance. Anything from saying no to an extra meeting here and there or going for a walk on a nice day to get out of the office. We all need to practice self-care so we can take care of our memories in the long run.



Multitasking: Do Music and Studying Mix?

I usually like to study alone, but if I’m ever over with a friend having a study session or just mutual homework time, a common question I get is often, “Hey, do you mind if I put on some music? I work better with it on.” In high school I used to religiously put on music when I did homework, but as I’ve gotten older I stopped. I kept finding it harder and harder to concentrate, and thinking back on it now, in the times that I had my music on while trying to do homework, I was very slow and pretty unproductive. This brings me to my question: is listening to music while doing homework harmful or helpful?

The first article cites two studies (both of which I have not found away around having to pay for to access: 1 & 2). The gist of the first study cited is that people were asked to remember information in a specific order after either being in a quiet environment, listening to someone say “three” repeatedly, listening to random numbers being said, listening to music they reportedly liked, or listening music that they reportedly did not like. The findings were that those who were in the quiet environment or with the person saying “three” over and over scored higher than the other three groups, which were not significantly different from each other. However, the other study that was cited, though getting similar results showing that those who listened to music scored lower than those who did not, also concluded that individual differences must account for a large variation in scores in general. Some of these differences may include if the participants were used to listening to music while studying or not.

Interestingly, this study talks about how music can influence mood, therefore influencing productivity. It states that what a person feels towards a musical piece depends on their past experiences with that specific piece. This was all being studied in the context of software development company, which reportedly is very stressful in nearly all stages of development. The interest in music comes from thinking that lower stress means higher productivity (which may be an entirely wrong assumption but might not be either, I haven’t done the research to know *cough,cough* someone should maybe find out and comment? *cough*). The researchers found that when music was taken out of a person’s daily work habits the person was likely to go through what may have been considered music withdraw, therefore they experienced more stress and less productivity. In the case where music was integrated into a work environment where people were not used to listening to music, results were not positive in the beginning, but after a few weeks people showed a more positive emotion than on the first week. The overall conclusion was that to keep people as stress-free and as productive as possible (when considering music during work) people should be able to choose to listen or to not listen, and also pick their own duration of listening to music.

Even after all that, I still have some unanswered questions. What would the difference be in listening to different cultural music than what you may be used to? Say, for instance if I listened to Indian music? Or, which I’m sure has already be addressed in some study out there, what is the difference in listening to music with lyrics vs. no lyrics? Or even the difference between music that you like but do not know the lyrics, vs. music that you like and you do know the lyrics? I often would find myself singing along and not paying attention to my work when I used to listen to music while trying to study. There is so much music in the world that I feel you would have to read an obscene amount of literature to understand how each one effected you, not even including one’s own feelings and experiences with certain types of music.

One of the things that inspired me to write about music is that, on occasion, either while going about my daily life or while doing homework assignments such as this one, certain songs will get stuck in my head and they often feel very relatable to my current situation. Is this a form of listening to music while working? Or is it something that your brain uses to help you remember things? I’ve heard from teachers that you should try and take tests in the same exact spot that you sit in in class. Or that you should chew the same flavored gum while you study as when you take a test, that supposedly these things will help you hold onto memories that are associated with your gum chewing or seat position as long as they stay constant. Could music be the same way? Though I’m sure it’s not permitted, if I listened to, for example, Jason Mraz’s “Remedy” (the song that happens to be stuck in my head right now), while reading my textbook, would I better remember what was written there on the test day if I listened to the same song while taking the test?

In addition to such questions, which as it turns out just leads to many more questions, do the songs that get stuck in our heads have meanings? In trying to understand why this “Remedy” song (which I dislike greatly and have not listened to since middle school) is stuck in my head, I’m thinking that these lyrics maybe have something to do with what’s going on in this blog post?

This is about to get really outlandish so bear with me… There is a section of the song that goes, “the remedy is the experience/ this is a dangerous liaison.” The definition of liaison being: “communication or cooperation that facilitates a close working relationship between people or organizations” (Google). Is that not relevant to what I’m writing about in an abstract way? If the remedy (music) is experience, which is what this whole article is about, how we experience music in different situations, then perhaps dangerous is a bit of a stretch, but it may be a cooperation of mental faculties to facilitate music and our brains working closely together to help us understand information in certain situations?

Perhaps that’s a load of nonsense.

Do you ever get songs stuck in your head that pertain to your life’s situation? Tell me what you think.