Teenage Exam Stress Solutions

We are now fully immersed in exam times at school.

Necessary to get through and always seemingly around the corner, I’ve yet to meet anyone who actually enjoys sitting exams. Of course that person probably is around somewhere but I’ve yet to meet them in my clinic.

The stress and anticipatory anxiety prior to exams is real and can feel overwhelming for many teens. If this becomes prolonged, the additional stress can affect many things including mood, sleep patterns, behavior and the immune system all of which can leave an individual feeling utterly drained, unmotivated and depressed.

Getting through exams is seemingly achieved largely on auto-pilot, with neglect both to the mind, body and spirit and this is the result I often see in clients.

Being a mother of two teenagers as well as someone who has experienced her own anxiety issues means that the topic of how food can help during times of stress is critical for myself, my family and for others.

We know that stress can have a negative impact on our health both physically and mentally, so anything that we can do to help ourselves seems key to understand and take action on.

One way we can help teens to help themselves to reduce their stress and anxiety, particularly during the exam period is to eat well. By avoiding unhealthy foods and increasing their intake of whole and unprocessed foods, they can greatly improve their concentration, energy levels and restorative sleep, thereby, naturally decreasing the levels of stress and anxiety within their bodies. Parents, who often feel quite helpless during exam times can also help in this area too.

Sugar balance and the gut. What’s ok to eat?

During exam periods the pressure – both internally and externally-to do well increases. At these times, there is a natural tendency to reach out and grab those quick fix sugary foods and energy drinks to keep the body and mind going. Of course, they boost energy levels in the very short term but this sudden spike of sugar and subsequent fall cause them to enter into a cycle of mood swings, fatigue and increased anxiety as they damage the levels of good bacteria within their gut.

When overloading on sugary foods, the levels of good bacteria decrease significantly, which can allow the ‘bad’ bacterial also living in the gut to increase in number and send signals to the brain via a nerve called the vagus nerve. A vicious circle ensues resulting in feeling more anxious, stressed and agitated, which then causes cravings for more sugary foods and so on.

So what should be avoided?

I generally advise that the following should be avoided during stress times to ensure that the body’s sugar balance does not go into peaks and troughs:

• All fizzy drinks including diet drinks (for so many reasons), energy drinks and squash.
• Biscuits
• Cakes
• Sweets
• Sugary cereal bars and breakfast cereals

Sugar is one food (and an anti-nutrient) that disrupts the signals in our body and brain and so is best avoided when we need to reduce our stress but other foods that also create issues include:

• Processed foods (those that often contain a long list of unpronounceable ingredients) such as sausage rolls, pastries, pasties, ready meals, processed meat: salami and bacon, biscuits and cakes.

• Caffeine

• Artificial sweeteners.

• And yes, ALCOHOL, never a great one for teens but in times of stress it can become more of a depressant, increase angry feelings and next day anxiety.

So what can teens include in their diets to make themselves feel stronger, calmer and more focused during this period?

  • Fruit and Veg – In order to get the requisite amount of vitamins and minerals needed including Vitamin C and magnesium, which are essential for maintaining energy levels, providing mental focus and a more balanced mood it is important to eat plenty of fruit and vegetables. Sugar will deplete the body’s resources, so stop reaching for the chocolate fix and choose to have an apple or other piece of fruit instead. Pile up the salad with each meal like the French do and add berries and/or nuts and seeds to the breakfast bowl. Vegetables, particularly of the green leafy type are excellent at keeping the mind and body calm due to their magnesium content so it’s important to include more foods such as watercress, spinach, broccoli, cucumber, avocados, kale and celery.
  • Water – Keep hydrated and drink often. Keep a bottle at your side. Even being slightly dehydrated can affect your concentration and stress levels.
  • Complex, slow release carbs – Stay away from the white stuff: bread, rice and pasta. Yes they can be comforting foods but they cause blood sugar peaks and troughs, which can trigger an anxiety and stress response in the body. Change it up to include the slower release stuff, rice pasta, and rice instead.
  • Increase your Omega 3 – Omega-3 has been shown to improve mental well-being. Try including more foods such as oily fish, salmon, mackerel, tuna and seeds such as flax seed and chia seeds.
  • Include more foods containing tryptophan
    Including foods such as turkey, salmon, chicken and cashew nuts will help to boost your mood as they all contain tryptophan, the amino acid that is required to make Serotonin – your happy hormone – and melatonin – your sleep hormone. Boosting serotonin levels will increase happiness and feelings of calm.

9 top foods to help improve mental well-being and reduce stress include:

• Berries, are the best. Low in calories but high in nutrients, they are king of the antioxidant foods. They are great for insulin sensitivity and fantastic for the brain. Use them straight from the freezer in smoothies, add to the morning bowl of yoghurt or keep as a snack.
• Bananas, are not only great for giving you energy, they also contain tryptophan so help with sleep at night. Easy to prepare they can be eaten alone, sliced on bread or blitzed in a smoothie.
• Celery, currently all the rage but with good reason. When it comes to reducing anxiety celery is brilliant as it contains phthalides which can effectively calm the nervous system by lowering the levels of cortisol, aka “the stress hormone”. Juice it, eat it raw or add wherever you like.
• Mushrooms, help feed the good bacteria in the gut and contain vitamin D, which is known to boost the mood. Add them whilst cooking or eat raw.
• Live plain yoghurt or coconut yoghurt. Make sure that it is unsweetened plain live yoghurt and not sweetened yoghurt. This will help feed your good bacteria in your gut. If you need to add a little sweet then you can sweeten it by adding berries

• Brown rice and brown rice pasta contains a good amount of fibre for a healthier gut, plus it is rich in manganese which helps with the production of energy in the body and the maintenance of a healthy nervous system..
• Avocados- are a nutrition bomb containing so many nutrients for the brain including healthy fats, potassium, magnesium, folate and vitamin K. This is your one-a-day food for calming and relaxing.
• Lettuce. Is great to eat during times of stress and anxiety as it helps to relax muscles, calm nerves and induce sleep. The darker the leaves are the better as they contain a sedative called lactucarium, which can help calm nerves and reduce palpitations.
• Cucumber contains phytoestrogens and digestive enzymes which benefit the gut. Due to their water content, they help to maintain the body’s water balance, creating more calm and relaxation.

Eating a variety of foods remains key and hopefully will help to decrease those high levels of stress and anxiety during exam periods. Think brain. Think energy. Think health. We are afterall, what we digest but ultimately it’s about what works for you.