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Underlying stress before ATAR results: what’s impacting your mental state?

Waiting on important and potentially life-changing news – like VCE results – is tough. It can occupy a lot of energy, brain power and focus. Managing this stress, according to our experts, is about eating well, being physically active, and staying in touch with your mates.

Understand how stress affects you physically

When we’re stressed, our bodies respond. Dr Anne Turner, a senior lecturer in Deakin’s School of Exercise and Nutrition Science, says we have two physiological responses: the classic ‘fight or flight’, and a second, slower response that releases cortisol into the blood stream and gets the heart racing.

When we encounter a physical stress, such as being chased by a lion, this increased heart rate and blood pressure can be really helpful. But, ‘when we encounter a psychological stress… our heart is racing, our blood pressure is up and our body is flooded by fuels not being utilised by our body,’ Dr Turner says. This, she says, is the unhealthiest kind of stress.

According to Dr Turner, managing this stress response starts with being active. Spending all day on the couch can feel comforting, but reducing the impact of stress chemicals means getting moving, and recharging with a good night’s sleep.

‘Current physical activity guidelines recommend being active preferably every day of the week,’ Dr Turner says. That means 150 to 300 minutes of moderate physical activity (like dancing or walking the dog), or 75 to 150 minutes of the vigorous kind (running, or playing a sport).

Avoid the temptation to stray from a healthy diet

Dr Anu Ruusunen, Clinical Senior Lecturer at Deakin’s School of Medicine, and Deakin PhD candidate, Meghan Hockey, explain that although chronic stress is often associated with a greater preference for foods that are high in sugar and fat, it’s common to experience a decrease in your desire to eat ordinary meals when you’re stressed.

‘Food reward and emotional eating also increases during stress,’ say Dr Ruusunen and Hockey. ‘As many as 35% to 60% of people report eating more total calories when they experience stress,’ filling up on pizza and soft drinks instead of fish and vegetables.

In the short-term, this comfort food is associated with decreased perceived stress and improved mood. ‘In the long-term,’ they say, ‘healthier dietary patterns are known to be associated with better mood.’ Plus, ‘we know that a healthy diet may play an important role in our stress-regulation system.’

Their advice? A diet high in veggies, fruit, fish and healthy oils like nuts.

Try not to anticipate the worst

No amount of good food, healthy movement, or positive thinking will change the fact that you just don’t know what the future looks like. Professor Michael Leiter from Deakin’s School of Psychology, says this anticipation can drive intense anxiety. Luckily, he also has some tips for managing each of the contributing factors.

‘First, anticipating serious harm or loss from a future event is stressful,’ he says. So, if you’re worried you might have a poor ATAR score, your mind can go into overdrive thinking about the potential consequences. What will be the impact on your career, or your family support?

The second anxiety driver is self-confidence. ‘It’s great to believe that, whatever happens, I have the skills, friendships and emotional resilience to make everything turn out fine,’ Prof. Leiter says. Anticipating a potential distressing outcome – like a low ATAR – might be stressful, but believing you will cope with the outcome has the opposite effect.

Thirdly, the way our brains work changes in times of uncertainty. Representativeness heuristics affects how we make reasonable judgements about the future, based on other people’s experiences. So, if you hear stories about people who were surprised by poor ATAR results, you’ll start to think that applies to you, too, even if it’s really unlikely.

Prof. Leiter’s advice is simple: be realistic about the future, have accurate information about probabilities, and recognise you have the tools to deal with the outcome, whatever it might be.

this. featured experts
Dr Anne Turner
Dr Anne Turner

Senior Lecturer, School of Exercise and Nutrition Science, Deakin University

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Dr Anu Ruusunen
Dr Anu Ruusunen

Health Postdoctoral Research Fellow, School of Medicine, Deakin University

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Professor Michael Leiter
Professor Michael Leiter

School of Psychology, Deakin University

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Meghan Hockey
Meghan Hockey

PhD candidate, Accredited Practising Dietitian, Food and Mood Centre, Deakin University

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