Matthew Greenacre / Student Health Education Centre

 

One of the best pieces of advice given by a professor must have been when Dr. Valliant told his first year chemistry class about to take a midterm to “think by the seat of your pants.” Though it seems like an odd phrase, it makes sense. Often when students come to a question they find unfamiliar, something that they cannot remember studying, they get anxious and waste time sweating and fumbling to search their memory. Instead it helps a lot more to sit back, breathe, and think about the question. Just wing it. After all, it’s just a question, and this way you might reason through it.

Test anxiety, or simply worrying about presentations, papers, and readings can be absolutely debilitating. Students can easily become overwhelmed, fret about doing their work and wind up watching seasons and seasons of online TV instead of beginning a paper or cracking their textbook open. Then when there is no other option but to frantically pour over their notes, or pull an all-nighter writing, the student often winds up unhappy with their work. Finding yourself in this situation is not simply about intelligence, or a matter of having a poor work ethic. Indeed, it’s quite the opposite. It is the difference between striving for success and being driven by the prospect of failure. The subtle difference between these two states is all about one’s attitude to work. Being able to see it as a challenge that one will enjoy taking on, like a puzzle, or it can just be, well, hard work.

Making the switch can be much harder for some than others. For many students, it can be as simple as taking a deep breath during our exam, being okay with not knowing the answer, and then giving “thinking by the seat of your pants” a try. However, those who might find this unthinkable, and who have a lot of trouble quelling their anxiety on a day-to-day basis could really benefit from taking the time to sit back and actually clear their mind.

A long history of studies going back to pioneering work of Jon Kabat-Zinn (a professor at the University of Massachusetts Medical School) in the 1970’s and ‘80’s have found that meditation reduces stress and anxiety, and even chronic pain. Now, before dismissing this article as a sneaky attempt to get you into saffron robes, lighting incense and hanging around with hippies, please note that meditation does not have to involve any of those things, unless you really want it to. It is really is more about taking a deep breath, letting go of your worry and being able to deal with your problems. Also, for most of us, stress is mental, not physical pain like as hunger, so it makes sense that we should be able to use our minds to release this stress.

Mindfulness-meditation in particular is about being able to let go of your fears by focusing on the moment. Because, when you think about it, fears are just a manifestation of the feeling that something bad will happen. By being in the moment you do not make those pessimistic assumptions in the first place. That does not mean that you no longer think the thoughts that worry you, but rather you just calmly choose not to follow these trains of thought. What is known as focused attention meditation is the painstaking practice of focusing on a single thing or sensation, noticing when you’ve been distracted by something else, and then bringing your attention back to what you are supposed to be focusing on. By practicing this, you train yourself to see the problem in front of you clearly, helping you figure out how to solve it, while learning not to automatically get nervous about the “what if’s.” Research at universities in Beijing, Oregon and Dalian have found that meditation effectively improves one’s attention and self-discipline, which is not surprising if one is spending an appreciable amount of time focusing intently on something very boring, such as breathing.

So given that, it’s understandable that meditation is not everyone’s cup of ginseng infusion, but if you are having trouble with stress it is important to take the time to deal with it. This time is never wasted, because less stress lets you focus and be more productive when you are doing work. Exercise is one of the best ways to relieve stress, as is spending time with friends. However, if you are interested in meditation resources to learn more about it and help you get started are posted on the SHEC Blog, which you can visit at www.shecmcmaster.tumblr.com.

Matthew Greenacre / The Silhouette

 

Imagine realizing that you haven’t consulted your textbook since before the midterm and your final exam is in 18 hours and counting. A knot forms in middle of your gut as you realize that you drank, YouTubed, or twittered away all the time you had to read those 12 chapters, and you really cannot afford to get a two in microbiology.

You then remember a friend who was in the same situation and got through it by taking a “pill” that allowed him to fixate on his work like a hunter does on their prey.

Four text messages later followed by a short walk to and from the house of a friend of a friend, and suddenly you’re sitting in front of your book, the knot rapidly melting away. Euphoria comes over you as read your textbook. In fact, it’s the only thing you want to do. You have no desire to go on Facebook, text your friends, or even eat or sleep for the next 12 hours.

This story is not one of a kind. According to a recently published review from the University of Tennessee, one in five university students claim to have abused prescription stimulants such as Adderall, Ritalin, or Concerta. Out of these students 90% have not been diagnosed ADHD.

The use of these drugs as study aids has become more and more common. Over time it has become more socially acceptable, given rise to ADHD diagnoses and has sparked a growing debate about whether this type of “cognitive enhancement” should be considered no different from drinking coffee or abuse of anabolic steroids. In an unstable economy, CEOs are taking Ritalin to work longer hours and some among the aging baby-boomer population consider Adderall a viable way of competing for jobs with the younger, more vigorous generations.

Along with worries about grades and future careers, some students justify Adderall or Ritalin abuse by claiming that they have undiagnosed ADHD. The gaping hole in this logic is that one should then see a doctor for a diagnosis and legal prescription, but perhaps their condition prevents them from doing so. Those with ADHD find it extremely hard to filter and prioritize the information that they are receiving from the outside world, or the thoughts inside their head. As one sufferer said, “I would sit in class without being able to understand anything…I could hear it but I would feel like there was a thin film of white noise hindering me from absorbing the information. So I would sit in class and leave without learning.” If your mind cannot decide what to pay attention to, and you have to continually consciously sort through thoughts and distractions, it’s easy to understand why you might miss a doctor’s appointment or not think to make one.

However, unless a person has been coping with this disorder since childhood, there is a strong possibility that the symptoms that he or she is calling ADHD are actually caused by stress and anxiety.

When a person has ADHD, the reward system of their brain is dysfunctional. This means that when he or she is thinking of doing something, they will have a great deal of trouble gauging how rewarding it would be in comparison to something else. This makes their brain unable to tell them which of their possible thoughts and actions should be encouraged.

The network of brain cells that calculate one’s incentives rely on a chemical dopamine used to communicate between the cells. If dopamine activity is hindered, the cells cannot communicate and the brain cannot calculate what it should pay attention to. People with ADHD have reduced dopamine activity. This might be due to their genes, such as when ADHD that shows up in childhood, but chronic stress and the resulting depression are also correlated with reduced dopamine activity.

Regardless of how it happens, anyone that has difficulty paying attention and functioning effectively should speak to a physician before taking what is potentially a harmful drug. The chemicals in the drug trademarked Adderall are amphetamines that act similarly to drugs like cocaine and crystal meth. The same is true of methylphenidates, commonly known as Ritalin and Concerta. They increase the amount of dopamine being used to communicate between cells, which balance people out if they have ADHD, but in the average person these drugs produce a strongly addictive euphoria by acting on the reward system. That is every time you take Adderall when you do not need it, you teach yourself that it is a pleasurable thing that you should keep doing.

One might say that an addiction to a drug that turns you into a study-monster could actually be a good thing. The problem is that amphetamine addiction causes brain damage. Aside from the cognitive problems brought on from killing brain cells, high doses lower dopamine, mimicking ADHD. Some studies have shown damage to reward systems, others have not. However, studies have conclusively shown that taking Adderall is bad for your heart. It increases blood pressure and heart rate and puts the user at significantly greater risk of cardiovascular disease.

So after considering the risks of taking Adderall, one should probably consider that regular exercise also greatly increases attention span, relieves stress by keeping your dopamine levels down and is also being beneficial for your heart and general health.

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