Not that anyone needs to be reminded, but final exams are next week.

So study hard, get plenty of sleep, eat well, try to stay calm. Oh, and don’t injure yourself.

No, seriously, don’t physically injure yourself.

Studies show that, when stress levels are high, you’re more likely to hurt yourself. It may be tripping over a curb. Maybe you tumble down a couple of stairs. Could be you’re tossing a Frisbee with some buds and you twist your ankle or knee.

“There are more injuries during midterms and finals,” says Gary Wilkerson, professor in Graduate Athletic Training in the Department of Health and Human Performance who has studied the phenomenon.

If you’re stressing because of an upcoming test or you think you bombed the last one, the chemistry and physiology of your brain actually changes, making you more prone to clumsiness and the resulting injuries, he says.

It works like this:

The part of the brain where emotions develop — the amygdala — and the part that controls decision-making — the anterior cingulate cortex — don’t communicate properly under stress.

Under normal circumstances, the amygdala and the cortex are bosom buddies, intimately intertwining emotion and decision-making. But under stress “the signaling can get messed up,” Wilkerson says.

Since decision-making is primarily influenced by sight, such fuzzy or slow brain signals can negatively affect your vision. That’s especially true with peripheral vision, which keys on motion and is key to recognizing possible dangers around you.

Stress leads to “slower reaction time because your peripheral vision decreases and you get tunnel vision,” Wilkerson says. “Your visual field actually narrows when you’re under stress.”

So as you cross the street, you may be oblivious to that car barreling down on you from the side. And if you do see it, you may not be able to move fast enough to get out of the way.

But hey, don’t stress about stressing. There are steps you can take to fight back, Wilkerson says. Get good sleep, for one. And not just flopping face-first into your bed for a couple of hours. You need several hours of sleep uninterrupted by any distractions, say light or noises around you.

“Sleep quality is extremely important, the volume and the quality,” he says.

And make sure you eat decent food.

“The more your blood sugar is fluctuating, the more effect that has on your brain’s processing,” he says. “And, if you eat crappy stuff, you get (acid) reflux and you don’t sleep as well. These things are interacting with each other.”

If you want to tame your stress in the long term — finals or not — try such activities as yoga, tai chi or meditation, he says.

Tests run on people both before and after six weeks of these practices show measurable and positive differences in the way the brain functions. Calm descends and stress reduces.

“You’re focusing on the moment and not being stressed out about what’s happened recently, not being anxious about what’s going to happen next,” Wilkerson says.


Media Relations Contacts: Email Chuck Cantrell or call (423) 425-4363.

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