Stressed About School? Stick Your Head in a Good Book [Series]

This is the fourth installment in a series about using Neuroscience Hacks for Library School. Here’s the first one on reasons to get more sleep ,the second on breathing to regulate the nervous system, and the third on learning styles.

At this stage, many of us are in the homestretch of our semester. I always thought “homestretch” sounded like such a lovely, comfortable place to be—we’re almost there. What I’ve learned with some practice in grad school, however, is that the term is anything but comfortable and means we’ve just survived the stress of midterms and will need to maintain an impossibly high level of productivity (and stress) for the next 6 weeks.

The scientist, Robert Sapolsky, has been studying the effects of stress in humans and other species for the past few decades. In his most recent book, Behave: The Biology of Humans at our Best and Worst, he summarizes some of his work over the years by discussing the difference between acute and chronic stress. In an acute stress response, the cortisol levels rise, and the organism is able to “fight, flight, or freeze” its way through the threatening situation. A zebra, for example, notices the threat of the approaching lion, and high-tails it out of there—going on to live another day. Through our evolutionary past, we developed in a similar way to zebras; that is, we are biologically prepared to handle acute stress.

We are not, however, biologically prepared to handle a semester’s worth of mounting assignments, work, family relationships under pressure, ongoing natural and political disasters, and traffic jams on top of it. This type of chronic stress leads to a host of health problems, both physical and psychological. In terms of our brain function, it leads to impairment in our executive function and working memory, and we rely pretty heavily on working memory to learn new information, compile presentations, and write coherent term papers.

So what is a grad student to do when we still have 6 weeks to go in the semester?

As we’ve talked about in other posts, self-care is a must. There is no getting around the amount of sleep we need for ongoing, healthy functioning. Eating lots of veg and drinking plenty of water can’t be beat. There is another neuroscience hack for library school, and it plays out in the choices we make around our studies. Much of the time, we have limited choice when it comes to what we read or which exercises we practice to fulfill the requirements of an assignment. For certain tasks though, like a presentation or paper topic, we can choose something we’re truly interested in studying. How is this a hack?

When it comes to stress, there is a sweet spot. Too much is detrimental to our health, but just the right amount causes us to focus and engage in ways that we otherwise would fail to do. By choosing something we are deeply fascinated by, we can become engrossed in an activity and charged by the experience instead of depleted. In these situations, stress is actually good for us. The hack is to try to weight our educational activities so they lean more on the side of enthralling and less on the side of exhausting.

What are some of the ways you’ve kept things interesting in your program? Please share your hacks in the comments!

Categories: Hack Your Program, Neuroscience, Reading

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2 replies

  1. I applaud your suggestion to indulge in some recreational reading. In my syllabus, I always include a few novels and mysteries that cover that week’s topic so students can absorb information without the stress of grades. There are many library / information oriented novels and mysteries out there. I’m always happy to make individual suggestions.


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