Oh My Science: Staying Alive During Dead Week

It’s dead week.

Everyone is talking about their mountains of stress and terrible amounts of things to do, and everyone has their own methods of stress relief. Maybe there are people who like to kill aliens endlessly in video games. Maybe someone else likes to paint their nails to give their brain a break. Others like to sleep their pain away. What actually works?

Here are my top 4 ways (with scientific backing, of course) to crush stress.

1. Exercise

Unfortunately for my lazy self, this actually does work. Even just 30 minutes of pretty vigorous exercise can help use up the extra stress hormones in your system so you don’t have to feel overwhelmed (1). It also helps with depression and a whole host of other nasty psychological nonsense (2).

    — increased endorphins (the happy hormones)
    — decreased cortisol (the main stress hormone)
    — bonus points if you run/hike/bike in nature (3)

Why does this make sense? We evolved to survive in a more active world. We used to have to run after food and run away from predators (or each other), and cortisol and other stress-related chemicals played a role in preparing us to spring into action. Now, we mostly sit around and stress ourselves out by thinking too much. Being able to use the stress hormones how they were meant to can do wonders for our minds.

2. Meditation

Mindfulness and calm, relaxed breathing can be really successful for stress relief. More and more studies are showing that meditation can help reduce stress and improve cognitive abilities (4). Mindfulness, in theory, works by getting your brain to re-learn how to relax. The brain is a physical thing, so when you learn something, you’re adjusting the physical set up of how the neurons that make up a thought are connected. Giving your brain a chance to focus on one thing and one thing only at one time while in a relaxed state can help you learn how to get to that state more quickly and more often, even when you have tests breathing down your neck.

3. Humor

Pop in your favorite comedy show, because laughing is great for bidding stress good-bye. A study showed that those with higher levels of humor had less stress overall (5). My personal favorite right now is Scrubs, but whatever makes you laugh will work just fine. Laughing is potentially great for the immune system, too, so even though you’re more likely to get sick from all the stress, you may be able to counteract it with a little light-hearted giggling (note: evidence isn’t super strong for this right now, but it can’t hurt!) (6).

4. Tea

Drink some tea! Some recent studies have shown that tea is preferable to most other kinds of caffeinated beverages for stress relief (7). Immediately, the warmth and yumminess of tea can help relax you, but longer term, the effects are bit more complicated and get much more ambiguous. Some speculate that there’s something in the tea leaves that helps regulate stress.

If you don’t already have your magic, never-failed method of stress relief, feel free to try one of these out if you don’t already use them. As always, I’ve included the references below. The articles I’ve included are a very small sample of the research out there, so if you’re interested in learning more, search away.

Good luck with finals!

1. Eliot RS, Forker AD, Robertson RJ. Aerobic exercise as a therapeutic modality in the relief of stress. Adv Cardiol. 1976;18:231-42.
2. Hughes JR. Psychological effects of habitual aerobic exercise: A critical review. Preventive Medicine. 1984;13(1):66-78.
3. Hansmann R, Hug S, Seeland K. Restoration and stress relief through physical activities in forests and parks. Urban Forestry & Urban Greening. 2007;6(4):213-225.
4. Davidson RJ, Mcewen BS. Social influences on neuroplasticity: stress and interventions to promote well-being. Nat Neurosci. 2012;15(5):689-95.
5. Abel MH. Humor, stress, and coping strategies. Humor – International Journal of Humor Research. 2002;15(4)
6. Bennett MP, Lengacher C. Humor and Laughter May Influence Health IV. Humor and Immune Function. Evid Based Complement Alternat Med. 2009;6(2):159-64.
7. Steptoe A, Gibson EL, Vuononvirta R, et al. The effects of tea on psychophysiological stress responsivity and post-stress recovery: a randomised double-blind trial. Psychopharmacology (Berl). 2007;190(1):81-9.