Maintaining Good Mental and Physical Health as a PCS Student

Sylvie Fraley

Life at PCS can be stressful. Pretty much every single student (and teacher) here can agree with that. There’s a lot to do, from homework to maintaining some semblance of a social life, to exercising, to planning your future, to spending time with your family. If you feel like you don’t have time to relax and think about you, just you, you’re not alone. But it’s so important to take that time. Taking time to care for your mental and physical health is one of the most important things you can do in middle and high school especially, but really throughout your life. It can feel like you’re simply too busy to reflect on your day, get a good night’s sleep, or catch up with your parents. But in reality, these things can actually be more productive to your success than any of the other parts, and can be well worth your time.

First, sleep: it’s something your parents worry about incessantly, and it can seem like a waste of precious time. While you sleep, your brain is preparing for the next day, and forming new pathways to help you remember information and learn (National Blood, Heart, and Lung Institute, Sleep Deprivation and Deficiency). Your learning is improved by enhancing your problem solving skills, attention abilities, decision making, and creativity. A lack of sleep can make you unable to control your emotions or to adapt to change, as well as cause you to take longer to complete a task, and make more mistakes on that task. All these effects are major determinants in your academic and personal success. Sleeping is a total win-win because you get to relax while also fostering these skills that allow you to be the best you can be when you are awake. It’s quality over quantity. Sleeping a full eight hours may mean you’re awake and doing stuff for less time each day, but the time you are awake is better utilized, more productive, and more fun. However, the reasons to skip sleep are compelling. In a study done of the 7th grade class at PCS in the spring of 2018, students reported that the two biggest reasons they don’t get enough sleep are homework and electronics. Staying up late to do homework is necessary sometimes, but if it becomes a habit you should look to change something up. The thing about homework is that it’s supposed to prepare you for class the next day. But as we discussed, not getting enough sleep can have strong negative effects on the brain’s ability to function and learn. In this way, knowing a few more key terms won’t help you if you can’t do things like apply them in class, concentrate, chose answers on quizzes, or soak up new information. Similarly, going on your phone or computer before bed makes falling asleep hard. The blue light from the screens messes up something called your circadian rhythms. These rhythms come from a part of the brain called the hypothalamus. The eyes send a message to the hypothalamus when there is no light that it’s time for bed. The hypothalamus then prompts the release of a chemical called melatonin, which makes you tired. The blue light from electronic screens confuses the eyes by emitting light which makes your eyes not send that signal to the brain to go to sleep. which inhibits the release of the melatonin. What’s more, that confusion messes up the circadian rhythms, which can make you feel out of sorts and can make it harder to pay attention afterwards (National Sleep Foundation). So although scrolling through Instagram or watching a show can feel like a good way to wind down, it actually is doing the opposite to your body.

Another thing that we all experience is stress. Being stressed out isn’t really fun for anyone, and it can distract you from your goals as well as making you depressed or lethargic. Finding a way to not let yourself get stressed out is a powerful thing, and it can give you the ability to enjoy your tasks a little more. Stress is actually really simple, in terms of the science. Basically, there are these chemicals called Cortisol, adrenaline, and noradrenaline. They evolved in humans to improve the ability to respond to a challenging or dangerous situation. These chemicals developed to be motivators that incite that ‘fight or flight’ response that can be a literal life saver. However, especially nowadays, that response is triggered too easy, misdirected, or too strong. Imagine being chased by a bear. Having that quick response could be essential to survival. But not, humans generally aren’t being chased by bears much these days, and that response is often triggered when it shouldn’t be, like when your teacher schedules a test.

A simple technique to combat stress that you can do from anywhere, anytime, is a breathing exercise. Exhaling is proven to be a short term stress relief.  Your body has two counterpart peripheral nervous systems that can be thought of as the gas and brake of your body, either accelerating or decelerating different functions like heart rate. One is called the parasympathetic nervous system, or the brake, and the other is the sympathetic nervous system, or the gas. Just like when driving a car, your body needs both the gas and the brake to function properly. When you take a breath in, blood is drawn from your heart into your lungs, thus decreasing the amount of blood available to the rest of your body. In order to compensate, your heart pumps blood faster by slowing the parasympathetic/brake system.  When you take a breath out, the blood redistributes itself more equally in your body instead of being concentrated in your lungs, and as a result your heart doesn’t have to pump as fast as the parasympathetic/brake system increases its influence. By slowing your breathing, your body is able to ‘emphasize’ the two equally important systems.

The last two important things to know that can set you up for success are that you are absolutely not alone in your middle and high school journey, and having a person you can talk to is super important. Middle and high school can feel like a lonely thing at times, but remember that everyone else is going through similar experiences and would most likely welcome your friendship. Also, you are literally surrounded by people, from your family to your peers to your teachers. If it feels like you are all by yourself, take a day and count the number of people you interact with. You’ll be surprised how many there are. However, it’s true that not all these people want to be or can be ‘there for you’ in terms of providing emotional support when you need it, so make sure you have at least one, if not more, people you can go to for that. It can be a friend, a parent, a teacher, a counselor, a sibling, just someone who can be there for you when or if you need it.