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What’s going on with your cortisol levels when you get your ATAR?

After a year of stress and anticipation, there’s just one final hurdle – the day you get your ATAR. Whether you’re looking forward to or dreading facing your ATAR, you’re probably feeling a lot of underlying stress bubble to the surface.

To ease some of the pressure, it helps to understand where your stress is coming from and why it’s having such an intense physical effect on you. During times of stress, the body continuously releases cortisol, and chronic elevated levels of cortisol can lead to serious issues. It’s a sad reality that the side effects of stress can be far scarier than whatever was stressing you out in the first place.

On the day you receive your ATAR, lean into the discomfort by predicting stress and preparing yourself. While removing it completely is beyond your control, you can still minimise and manage its effects on your mental health.

The origins of the stress hormone

Stress is an inevitable aspect of life both before university and beyond. Managing stress starts with understanding the role of cortisol, often called the stress hormone, and its physiological effects.

Cortisol is a steroid hormone that means well but inevitably gets it wrong. Produced by your adrenal glands, it helps regulate blood pressure and the immune system during stressful situations. The problem is that it’s not particularly good at distinguishing what constitutes a minor or major crisis in today’s modern world, especially after a year of major crises.

In early human evolution, the ‘fight or flight’ reaction to stress came in response to an immediate physical threat, like a lion on the loose. The release of cortisol signalled a need to burn energy either in direct conflict or in decamping fast. However, in today’s world, the stresses we face mostly involve work, study, or personal relationships rather than getting chased by a lion. Elevated levels of cortisol can actually wreak havoc on our bodies, especially if the stress is ongoing.

Professor Michael Leiter, who works in Deakin’s School of Psychology, says that cortisol is public enemy number one for students who are in precisely this state of ongoing stress as they await their ATAR results.

‘Not being ready to face your ATAR is just the kind of situation that will trigger cortisol,’ he says. ‘When cortisol levels are constantly high, they can interfere with learning and memory, suppress immune function, cause sleep problems, increase blood pressure and lead to weight gain. Extreme stress can be dangerous and should be addressed before you face your ATAR.’

How to control your reaction to stress

Humans are hardwired to respond emotionally to a ‘big reveal’ – think about the popularity of cliff-hanger endings in TV series. But when it comes to our personal lives, waiting for a moment of revelation can create tension in a much less enjoyable way.

To combat the surges of cortisol that occur in response to psychological and physical stress, Professor Michael Leiter says the best thing you can do for yourself is to plan ahead. In the context of ATAR scores, that means thinking about how you’ll take the news, regardless of whether it’s thrilling, disappointing or just a little anti-climactic.

‘Simple breathing exercises improve blood flow to the brain and help combat negative thoughts,’ he says. ‘Make a habit of practising them when your mind is stuck in overdrive or panic is setting in. If you’re used to doing these exercises before you face your ATAR, it will help you have more of a measured response to them – especially if they are below your expectations.’

Laura Brooks, a lecturer in Nursing at Deakin’s School of Nursing and Midwifery, agrees. To control your body’s physiological response to a stressful moment, she suggests trying to stimulate your parasympathetic nervous system. ‘Often a good strong cough or focused deep breathing will be enough to reduce your heart rate,’ she says.

Brooks recommends using the STOP acronym if you’re pre-emptively worrying about certain outcomes or simply have trouble slowing your mind down. ‘(S) stop what you are doing, (T) take a few deep breaths, (O) observe your body, mind and thoughts, and (P) proceed with caution/wisely.’

Recognise that whatever your result, you have the power to respond in a way that benefits you. Set yourself up to make the right decision. 

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Professor Michael Leiter
Professor Michael Leiter

School of Psychology, Deakin University

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