Escaping stress by the senses
University life is both exciting and stressful in equal measures. For a lot of students, the heady combination of parties and deadlines, socialising and working can all culminate in a dire need for some time-out. Burning the candle at both ends is precisely what student life has us doing, and it can leave you feeling over-stimulated and burnt out.
Take a night out, for example: a crowded room, pumping music, flashing lights, the taste of alcohol, the smell of sweat and perfume... your senses are taking a beating. So how about taking a few moments every now and then to indulge your senses as opposed to assault them? Your reward will be the knowledge that you have the tools to inject a little calm into even the busiest of days.
The part of our brain that processes smell (the olfactory bulb) is situated very close to the hippocampus, which processes memory. That’s why the smell of freshly cut grass may conjure up images of summers that have past, or some scents take you back to childhood memories of home-cooked meals or your mother’s perfume. Thus smell has the power to take you back in time and to influence your current mood. So next time you breathe in, notice any smells that waft your way, inhale deeply and let your mind wander to another time, another place.
Conversely you could take a more active approach to using smell to help you relax. Find a scent that works for you – maybe it conjures a calming memory – or you could try aromatherapy suggestions such as lavender, geranium, bergamot and chamomile. These scents are easy to come by in the form of fresh or dried plants, essential oils or in herbal teas and are all associated with reducing feelings of stress and anxiety.
On the subject of tea, next time you go to the supermarket, add some to your shopping list. Caffeine in coffee, black tea and energy drinks stimulates the sympathetic nervous system setting us on high alert, ready for the day ahead. Not helpful if you are trying to switch off or go to sleep. Try herbal tea instead. Chamomile, lemon balm and lavender teas all have calming properties, while ginger and peppermint are great for aiding digestion.
Use the time it takes to boil the kettle and brew the tea not as an extra five minutes to idly flick through your phone, but as a chance to slow down, breathe in the steam and accompanying scent and pay full attention to the task in hand. Anytime you feel stressed or over-loaded during the day, just step out for a while and make your tea. Notice the warmth of the cup in your hands, the heat gently sliding down your throat, the flavours wrapping round your taste buds. Feeling better?
Cuddle something! Anything! Maybe ask for permission first though. Hugging releases the hormone oxytocin, which in turn lowers levels of the stress hormone cortisol. This has a calming effect and creates feelings of general well-being. Physical connection itself is a good way to reduce stress as it reinforces relationships, whether a pat on the back to acknowledge you are doing well, or a squeeze of the hand to let you know that person is there for you. Being sociable, while it may be stressful at times, is an opportunity to share your concerns and help each other through the tougher times. Alternatively, try pet therapy. Petting or playing with an animal also produces oxytocin and helps you to live in the moment, to get that tail wagging and you smiling. If you don’t have a pet of your own, try borrowing one from a friend or volunteer at a kennels, cattery or stables and start spreading the love.
Here are three tips for relaxing the eyes… apart from napping. As a student, you should already be proficient in the art of the power nap.
Firstly, get outside. Natural light is far less harsh on the eyes than artificial light and is also better for maintaining your natural circadian rhythm. Getting amongst nature is easy here in Auckland – we have beaches, forest, parks and picnic areas right on our doorstep just waiting to be enjoyed. What could be more peaceful than the breeze rustling the trees, waves breaking and birds singing? And you get the added bonus of topping up your Vitamin D from sunlight.
Secondly, I know this is the age of technology, and smart phones are wonderful things, but consider turning screens off an hour before bedtime, or give yourself a short break from them during the day. You will sleep better and regain autonomy from the feeling of having to check regularly for notifications and updates.
Thirdly – and I risk sounding like your mother here – tidy up. Keep your workspace and bedroom clear of clutter and you won’t be constantly distracted by that DVD you wanted to watch or reminded of that task you have to do later or the clothes you haven’t yet put away. A calm space nurtures a calm mind.
Now here is where apps come in handy. Both white and pink noise have been associated with better sleep quality, despite YouTube being full of countless videos of waves lapping, whales singing, the dawn chorus and relaxing music. Find what works for you and keep it accessible so you can put in your headphones and switch off whenever the need arises. Similarly, you could try listening to guided mediation aimed at encouraging you to connect with your breath, notice what is around you and pay less attention to a chaotic mind and negative thought processes. You can also find sleep stories online, which when told by a narrator with the vocal capacities to soothe. These can help you slip off into a peaceful sleep much like a child does after a bedtime story. Just because you are in your twenties, doesn’t mean it won’t work anymore.
There are many more tips and tricks besides these to help you escape the stress of student life and I wholeheartedly recommend you try any that take your fancy, take your time and find what works for you.