If you’re like me, the chances are pretty strong that studying may not be your favorite pastime. If you’re like me, you probably feel that studying is one of life’s unfortunate necessities — something you do because you can’t succeed academically otherwise. And if you’re like me, you likely spend most of your evenings during the school year getting it done, stressing about getting it done or avoiding it all together. But what if you didn’t have to do any of that?
What if studying 24/7 wasn’t actually necessary? What if, in that time you spent avoiding it, you could feel relieved knowing that you were doing something just as beneficial to your education? What if relaxation actually proved itself to be an essential part of your study life? Plot twist: It already has.
1. Mental Benefits
Scientific studies worldwide have shown that the benefits of relaxation reach far beyond the immediate — your Netflix binge does more than just amuse you. An article by the Huffington Post found that while stress and hard work serve to impair the prefrontal cortex of the brain (controlling abstract thought, cognitive analysis and behavioral decisions), taking time to rest can actually help your brain to function at a more efficient level. Similarly, short bursts of stress — like those cram study sessions we’re all fond of — can impair memory and learning centers of the brain. So, basically, if you haven’t studied the morning of the exam, you might as well just give your brain a break and take the loss.
Taking it to a more extreme level, a study from the University of Cambridge in 2007 found that relaxation might also be the key to lessening risk of stroke. In this study, it was evidenced that those who operated at a lower stress level had a 24 percent lower risk than those who dealt with stressful life events less gracefully. Returning to the aforementioned Huffington Post article, it was presented by a 2011 study that psychological stress — like the fear of failing out of college — causes about 10 percent of strokes. (Though granted, this study only examined men.) Now, I’m not saying that studying will kill you, but relaxation will definitely save you.
Of course, the mental benefits of quality relaxation should come as no surprise. What might seem a little shocking is just how much the rest of your body is strengthened.
2. Physical Benefits
New findings, as detailed in a New York Times article, indicate that regular, deep relaxation can strengthen one’s immune system, positively influence the endocrine system and ease tensions in the cardiovascular and muscular systems. Going into more specifics, this means that intensive techniques (like meditation or yoga) may help fight off infection or trigger hormone secretions that release muscle tension, lower blood pressure and slow heart rate. In one specific case, relaxation training in medical students was found to increase their levels of cells that ward off disease – during exams. Now, I don’t know about you, but the last thing I feel during exam week is healthier.
Another study mentioned in Goleman’s article, from the British Medical Journal, stated that patients trained in relaxation experienced significant decreases in blood pressure, lasting a minimum of four years. So, not only does understanding how to properly relax improve one’s current health, it casts its benefits far into the future. Accordingly, research conducted at Harvard Medical School found that consistent meditation decreases the body’s future response to stress hormones. Though the body’s endocrine system will still continue to produce these hormones in response to its environment, the usual effects of such will have lessened. Stressing without really stressing? I imagine we’d all be pretty OK with that.
3. Emotional Benefits
Maybe it’s just me, but I always find myself to be particularly emotional during stressful times in my life. In fact, I recall being so stressed out one time that I just randomly blew up in the hallway — as in, I was legitimately yelling at someone — in front of people. Not my best move. But surprise, surprise, relaxation can help lessen the chances of an incident like that too.
As evidenced by my example, it may be understood that stress can often muddy the waters of the brain and lead to more emotion-driven decision-making. However, what is not common knowledge is that such emotion also changes how we weigh risks and rewards (Huffington Post). When it comes to important decisions, stress makes us much more likely to focus on the positives, ignore the negatives and make the wrong choice. To quote Dr. Mara Mather, a professor of gerontology and psychology at the University of Southern California: “That may also help explain why alcoholics crave a drink more when they’re under pressure. The compulsion to get that reward comes stronger and they’re less able to resist it.” Of course, I’m not really talking alcohol here (although many of us are college students, and I very well could be). The main point of this whole thing is that relaxation — less pressure — will help us to make more conscious, rational choices.
Still, the benefits of relaxation continue. Yet another important benefit of relaxation is its lessening of and protection against the ever-looming monster of depression. According to Time.com and a 2011 study in mice, chronic stress can kill brain cells and prevent the creation of new ones in the hippocampus. This part of the brain is extremely important in providing a healthy response to stress, but when affected, it leads to loss of appetite, sadness and hopelessness — all symptoms of depression. However, effects such as these have also been proven outside of mice: “In humans, the prolonged presence of stress hormone cortisol can reduce levels of serotonin and dopamine, which are linked to depression." Translation: Don’t worry, be happy.
So how can this actually be applied? How can relaxation become as integral to your study schedule as the studying itself? Well, there are a few answers to that one.
For starters, as much as you might love that daily Netflix chill, it won’t give you the vast extent of benefits listed here. Rather, to receive the full range of relaxation’s effects, one must learn the aforementioned “intensive techniques.” This might be meditation in your dorm room, repetitive prayer as you walk across campus or yoga in your college’s recreational center, but it can also include newer techniques. These modern methods encompass biofeedback and progressive muscle relaxation (PMR) — the former involving electronic monitoring and the latter offering a simpler option. If you want an easy relaxation routine, PMR is definitely for you. All it requires is you, your body and some time. For more information on the details of this method, visit VeryWell.com’s article on the topic here.
In quick conclusion, it’s easy to now understand that studying is not the end all, be all to academic success. You’ll get out of your education exactly what you put into it, but for the best results, that needs to include relaxation. It is more mentally, physically and emotionally healthy to take a break than to continue studying for hours on end. And, I mean, come on — did you really want to do that anyway? Start relaxing; stop studying.
Lead Image Credit: Madi Telschow