By Dr Trudi Edginton, clinical psychologist and senior lecturer in cognitive neuroscience at the University of Westminster
Stress and decision-making
As students across the country await their A-level results, elements of anxiety and stress may start to emerge. Months of hard work and sustained focus coupled with the pressure of having to make crucial decisions about the immediate and long-term future can leave students feeling overwhelmed. As a lecturer at the University of Westminster who previously changed careers and started a course as a mature student through Clearing, I know from experience that selecting the right career path, the right university, the right course, deciding whether to have a gap year and how to finance it, devising a realistic Plan B and worrying about what one’s friends will be doing can all play a part in the build-up of stress.
Stress is a natural and essential survival response that can enhance performance at optimal levels. However, if the perceived or actual demands exceed available resource, the stress can have a negative impact on health and well-being. Although the effects of long-term stress on the mind and body vary for each individual, common features include muscle tension, palpitations, pain, fatigue, low mood, attentional difficulties, and poor concentration and decision-making.
Learning how to manage stress is an invaluable tool for students throughout the run-up to Results Day on 18 August and will be crucial, especially on the day, for those who do not achieve the grades that they expected or needed. It is always difficult to cope with negative emotions and perceptions, but it is even harder to cope with them at such a pivotal point when efficient cognitive processing, psychological resilience and flexibility will be required to make effective decisions quickly. Psychologists acknowledge how important it is both to process emotions and to be aware of how emotions can distort our perceptions, thereby validating the feelings that are naturally associated with disappointment and the sense of social judgement.
As a clinical psychologist and mindfulness teacher who specialises in cognitive neuroscience, I often work with people who are experiencing a wide range of symptoms associated with stress-related conditions. One of the most effective stress management techniques that my research focuses on is the understanding of the biological and psychological mechanisms that contribute to stress, including the impact of negative thoughts on our bodily sensations, feelings and the way we respond. Common cycles may originate from thoughts of not being good enough, which in turn can lead to tightening in the chest or stomach, a sense of fear and a strong desire to avoid similar situations. Noticing these automatic negative thoughts and the effects that they can have on emotions and bodily sensations is key to interrupting these cycles and managing the stress. Taking deep breaths to calm the sensations in the body and acknowledging that these are natural stress responses that will soon pass can be a powerful way of coping with the physical discomfort.
Research has shown that regular mindfulness practice can reduce stress and increase cortical connections in the brain regions that are involved in emotion regulation, self-awareness and psychological flexibility. Our ability to engage in “mental time travel” – looking at the past, present and future – largely underlies our natural tendency to worry about future events and ruminate about the past. Adopting a mindful approach to the mental time travel between the past and the future can help with staying focused on the present moment and accepting that thoughts are mental events that can change over time rather than long-standing, unchangeable facts.
Understandably, there will need to be a time for students to pause and reflect on what may have gone wrong with their results and to consider what can be put in place for the future. Perhaps anxiety was a key factor that influenced exam performance, perhaps revision strategies were poorly constructed, perhaps time or effort was an issue, or perhaps unexpected life events were contributory factors?
Personal reflection and discussions with a compassionate and objective listener can be incredibly helpful, as talking about your feelings and realising that you are not alone are key steps in building confidence and developing coping strategies for life’s unexpected setbacks. Honest appraisals of past events and examining what is important in terms of personal goals and personal values can also provide us with an exciting opportunity to re-evaluate and reframe our situation and to create a new life course and a new narrative based on personal strengths, resilience and passion.