A conversation worth having – you’re not alone

I really like this band and while listening to their stuff I came across this interview. As well has being in a band that write great songs, and having an amazing voice, the lead singer Conor is really articulate about mental health. I’ll let him speak for himself…

If you’d like to come along to our Wellbeing ‘keep fit’ class, that draws on Movement, Yoga and Mindfulness then take a look at this info about the Friday ‘virtual’ sessions.

World Mental Health Day – 10th October

The World Health Organisation recognises World Mental Health Day on 10 October every year. This year’s theme set by the World Federation for Mental Health is ‘mental health for all’ (Mental Health Foundation)

“Mental health problems can affect anyone, any day of the year, but 10 October is a great day to show your support for better mental health and start looking after your own wellbeing” (Mind)

In the articles below here you will find advice around lots of different ways to look after your wellbeing: Successfully coping with the transition to life at university, how to get help if you need to talk to someone, our Wellbeing and Mindfulness Drop-in, and lots more wellbeing tips and hacks. Maybe mark World Mental Health day by a small act of kindness to another person? Perhaps start by being kind to yourself by joining us for the Friday Wellbeing Drop-In.

Surviving and Thriving in your First Year at University

Between us, our team has about a hundred years of experience of supporting students (slight exaggeration maybe 😊!).

Here we’ve collected together the main things we’ve found that might be helpful to you as you begin your journey here at University.

We’re also drawing on things that final year students have told us they wished they’d known when they started.  Things they wished they could’ve gone back and told their younger self. So now you get the benefit of that too.

Settling into Univeristy Life

It’s natural and OK to be nervous: don’t get caught up in thinking everyone else is confident, that they know what they are doing. Most of us came to university terrified! Just let it be. Be curious, explore, get to know the person next to you, and your tutor, the person in the café/shop/local pub. Explore the nearest fell, learn to meditate, and before you know it, you’ll start to relax and get into the flow of university life.

There’s so much to do! Starting University often brings with it a lot of things that need to be done.  Registration, student finance, preparing for lectures etc. Making a list of everything that needs to be done can help you to prepare and makes sure you don’t forget anything important.

While it’s a busy, exciting time, it can be easy to get swept up with all the things that need to be done. Remember to take some time for self-care that allows you to rest and recharge both physically and mentally. Don’t feel that you need to spend all your time being busy, you need some time to yourself.

You won’t be the first person coming to university to feel homesick: It might be frightening or upsetting if you’ve moved away from home for the first time, and your parents/family/loved ones have left after dropping you off. Feeling this way is perfectly normal and will soon pass.

Getting involved in an activity or socialising will help to give you something else to focus on. Living independently might feel overwhelming for the first days or weeks; adding a routine and some structure to your day will help you to settle in.

If the weather’s nice (or if you’ve got some bracing Cumbria weather then put on some warm clothes), and you’ve got some free time, a walk around campus is good exercise, which usually improves mood. It also allows you a chance to familiarise yourself with the campus, which helps to avoid trying to find your lecture or meeting on the day.

Balance: Although your university work is of course important, try not to lose perspective when it comes to your studies; remember you are more than a grade and it does not define you.

If you feel yourself becoming overwhelmed by deadlines and exams, get organised! Create a revision/essay timetable, breaking down your work into smaller, digestible chunks. That way you know what you need to complete and when.

Don’t overdo it. Try not to study any longer than you would if you were doing an average working day (around 7 hours). Allow for plenty of breaks and be boundaried. For example, if you have a lot of work, then study 9am to 6pm (with several breaks), and then mark the end of study time by doing a self-care activity, whether that be coffee with a friend, a walk or gym session or your favourite hobby.

Routines and Self-Care: When we feel worried or stressed, we might struggle to relax or sleep, which can then lead to getting more tired. We can start to lose touch with things we used to enjoy or give us pleasure, things that sustain us, eating and sleeping properly, getting some exercise. And all this makes it harder to concentrate, which then creates more stress. So, what can we do to help ourselves out of this cycle? 

  • Get into a routine with sleep, preparing meals, and exercise
  • Make time to do things you enjoy, chatting with people, a hobby…
  • Stay ‘connected’ with others, especially spending time around positive and supportive people
  • Doing something that gives you a sense of achievement for example, learning something new or completing a piece of work
  • Time to pause, relax and reflect. Check in with yourself at the end of the day, reflect on what you have achieved and what gave you a sense of pleasure and closeness
  • These things help to nourish both our mind and body
Light at the end of the tunnel

Try something new: Coming to University can be a time to push yourself outside of your comfort zone. Although we are constrained by Covid, where possible, maybe it’s time to try something new. Take a fresh look at the societies and clubs available. It’s a good way to meet new people and have some fun.

Some useful maxims to live by: (Lorrie and I like the cheeky positivity of NLP and we’d like to share some of this wisdom with you)

‘There is no such thing as failure only feedback’. Such a great way to approach life! It supports me every time I get things ‘wrong’. For example, applying this to a situation where maybe I got a disappointing grade. Rather than thinking this is evidence that I am not good enough, to remind myself that it is now a great opportunity to learn how not to repeat the same mistakes and approach my work differently next time. It’s an opportunity to identify needs, tap into the available resources at the university and get skilled up.

‘If it’s possible in the world its possible for me, it’s just a matter of how’. There are many examples in the world of people achieving amazing things and reaching their personal goals.  Sometimes we forget what drives us to where we want to be. If we refocus our attention of why our chosen topic is important to us, we can then access what is valuable and meaningful to us. Once we reconnect to our life purpose we can continue driving forward and stay positive.

A useful tip for people who are worried about worrying. Sometimes overthinking can be a problem because having too many choices prevents us from making a choice and we remain inert. It can be useful to reframe this ‘The person with the greatest flexibility of thought and behaviour will have the greatest influence in any interaction (Ashby’s Law of Requisite Variety). The things we think of are often limited by our own life experiences, thoughts and feelings. By listening, learning, and maintaining our curiosity, we can start to think beyond what we know. This leads to richer understandings, and a greater number of thoughts, feelings, behaviours and choices available to us.

People make the best choice available to them, given their model of the world and resources available to them at the time. This helps us to stop beating ourselves up over the mistakes that we make. Remembering this can also help us to develop patience when dealing with others, as we learn to accept that other people’s ideas and feelings are as important to them as ours are to us.

Remember that we’re here for you, if you need us. If you’re struggling just ask for help.

Student Minds have also produced some good information about coping with the transition to student life in the time of Covid.

The MH&WB Team: Bridget, Dave, Fred, Lauren, Lorrie, Nesta, Pat, Sarah, Shez, Tessa (in alphabetical order)

What to expect when you refer to the University of Cumbria’s Mental Health and Wellbeing Team

If you find yourself struggling to cope then there are a range of support services at the UoC. Of course reaching out to family and friends is usually a good idea as well. Even though you might not want to worry them, just think how you would want to help them if they faced a similar situation.

This blog has lots of information and tips on looking after yourself and improving your wellbeing, just take a look at the tags for the various topics. And we have also produced a list of self-help resources. If you’ve got to a point where you think you need professional advice and support then here is some information about Health and Wellbeing.

Information about the Mental Health and Wellbeing Team

About the Mental Health Team:

We had 600+ students make contact with us in the 2019-20; wanting help for a whole range of difficulties. These included low mood and depression, anxiety, panic and stress, relationship difficulties (with family, friends, colleagues, housemates, partners, etc.), current or historical abuse (sexual, physical, emotional), bereavement, homesickness, self-harm, drinking too much alcohol, eating problems, sleep problems, and a range of other emotional difficulties.

The team has practitioners from a range of professional backgrounds, with a wide range of therapeutic training, interests and experience. This includes Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (CBT), Person Centred Counselling, Integrative Counselling, Neuro Linguistic Programming (NLP), Mindfulness Based Counselling, Solution Focused Therapy, Advocacy and Motivational Interviewing. 94% of students who have used our service would recommend it to a friend

Lake Windermere near the Ambleside Campus

How to access the service

You can access our service if you are registered with a programme of study at the University of Cumbria by completing this self-referral form, which should only take you about 10 minutes. (If you are studying on a programme at a partner organisation of the University of Cumbria, you will need to access the support services at that organisation). Filling in the form with as much information about you and your present situation as you can, will give the team a good starting point to help you work through your difficulties. The details you put on the form will only be available to the Mental Health and Wellbeing Team (unless you ask us to share it with others, for example your GP, or it is required by law – please speak to us if you have any concerns about this).

We will then get in touch to arrange a therapeutic consultation with one of our practitioners. Your appointment will come via the email address that you provide in the online form, so do check this regularly. To ensure the message gets to you rather than getting filtered as spam, please remember to check your spam/junk mail folder as well.

Please respond to the message by accepting the appointment date and time (or requesting to reschedule, if you can’t make the one offered). Please note that we will usually close a file if the student does not respond or not show up for their appointment, and in that case you will need to re-refer yourself.

At our first (therapeutic consultation) meeting we will try to make you feel as comfortable as possible, so that you can let us know the situation you’re struggling with. We will advise you on the limitations of the service, including the limitations of confidentiality. It will be an opportunity for you to ask any questions you may have of the services we provide. We will then suggest things that you could do to help, provide information about resources and other services that might be appropriate, and decide what else might be needed from our service.

It might be that a single session is all that is needed for you to begin to resolve your situation. Or one of our wellbeing courses might be the most appropriate thing to do. Or referred to other services within the University, or referred to specialist services external to the University. Or it might be that further 1 to 1 work is needed.

Complementing our service, there is also a free 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, online support service provided by Togetherall

Wellbeing and Mindfulness Virtual Drop-in

Fridays 4:00 to 5:00 pm online, live via ‘Teams‘ – Starting on 25.9.20

We live in stressful times. There is just so much in the news and social media to cause us to worry. And then there are the stresses and strains of everyday living. University life is an exciting and positive time, and it comes with the challenges of a significant life transition, and academic work as well!

Here’s a fun and relaxing way to increase wellbeing and feelings of calm. Build skills to handle stress and improve mood.

Would you like to increase your coping skills? Is there a way to increase wellbeing and resilience? Here’s your chance to be kind to yourself and to create a nurturing space for yourself. We can’t ‘magic away’ the struggles of everyday life, but we can increase our ability to cope, and strength to face our challenges.

These sessions aim to introduce you to practical, easy to use, skills that can help to enhance your physical and mental wellbeing, and increase your ability to handle stress and manage difficult emotions.

The sessions offer ‘wellbeing hacks’ drawn from a wide range of sources – Movement & Yoga, Mindfulness, Breathwork, Compassionate Mind, CBT, Polyvagal Theory, EFT, Guided Imagery and the NHS Five Ways to Wellbeing:

  • Breathing and focusing techniques to help calm and centre
  • Simple mindfulness meditation practices to focus and quiet the mind
  • Visualisation techniques to increase feelings of wellbeing
  • Movement and postures that can settle emotions, and help us to feel more grounded
  • Learn how self-compassion and self-acceptance can be a key to wellbeing
  • Improve your memory, concentration and cognitive functioning
  • You will be offered resources to take away and practice to help strengthen these skills.

To sign up, just email me on Shehzad.Malik@Cumbria.ac.uk and I will send you the ‘Teams’ link to join.

Wellbeing tips, by students for students

Back in March as part of University Mental Health day we asked students to tell us their Mental Health and Wellbeing tips.

Thank you to everyone who took the time to share their thoughts. We had lots of really good ideas and wanted to share your wisdom with other students, in your words (in a few places we’ve added a comment or a link). Here is what you told us:

Student tips on wellbeing included getting out for some exercise and fresh air

Self-care

  • Enjoy the little things
  • Take time for yourself, even when you “don’t have time”
  • Set aside some time in your day to do something for yourself that makes you happy… take the time to recharge your batteries and clear you mind for the next day
  • Make time for things you love
  • Look after yourself and give yourself time
  • Watch you fave Netflix show
  • Make sure you always speak out if needed
  • Take a nice relaxing bath, (or shower if no bath available)
  • Selfcare Sundays
  • You are the number one priority! Put yourself first and worry about others later, self-care before anyone else
  • Listen to music and relax (here’s a breathing exercise to do just that, from my colleague Pat Redfern)

The company of friends, it’s good to talk

  • The most important thing is to talk to a family member or trusted friend about what’s worrying you. Let them hug you and give you a shoulder to cry on
  • Spend time with people you love! (You’d be surprised how much evidence there is that kindness is good for us!)
  • Talking to people always helps
  • Keep very social with your friends so you’re never lonely
  • I walk my dog, and talk to family and friends about my worries
  • Talk about it, have a cup of tea and a nice chat (with biscuits)
  • Do things that make you happy and spend time with people that are supportive
  • Make sure you always have a date with a friend booked in the diary!
  • Having a good balance between finding time for yourself, and socialising with peers and friends
  • No topic is taboo, even if it is hard, talk as much as you can about your mental health
  • Be around people who care and they will help bounce you out of any bad feelings/moods
  • Just talk about it, people will listen and it’s a weight of your chest
  • Do not keep toxic people in your life, even if they are on your course

Mind your thinking, and learn to meditate

  • Take every day as it comes. If you’ve got things on your mind, switch off at night, write them down and put them aside, come back to them when the time is right. Don’t overthink every little thing, it will seem worse and spiral out of control
  • Practice mindfulness as a normal thing (Excellent idea! As well as lots of other benefits, mindfulness has been shown to help develop skills in stepping back from rumination (negative-overthinking) here’s a practice to get you started)
  • Think of a positive thing you’ve done today, even something small counts
  • Download the ‘headspace’ app. Take advantage of the sleep music and exercises
  • Accept yourself, there is only one of you

Small steps and a good balance

  • Start writing, rather than facing assignments as whole, less stressful, less full on
  • Get organised, and reward yourself with each step (this fits very nicely with suggestions in our procrastination blog)
  • Make sure you plan time well, so that you make time to step back and take time for yourself
  • Social life and studying should be evenly split
  • Take deep breath, get a cup of tea and make a plan, and start again

Get out in in the fresh air

  • Get some activities that are not to do with the university, like walking through the park or going to a place that calms you
  • Go for a walk whatever the weather!
  • Go for a nice walk
  • Walking with headphones
  • If you can take a break and get outside, even just 5 or 10 minutes away from a screen, getting some fresh air can clear a foggy mind
  • Spend time outdoors in nature
  • Go to the hills

Sleep well

  • Make sure you get enough sleep. Have a good regular amount of sleep
  • Give yourself time to relax and do a self-care routine, e.g. bath, read a book, pamper yourself
  • Have 20 minutes off your phone before bed every evening to help sleep. Try reading, drawing, knitting, sewing, talking to friend or yoga instead (yes definitely better than too much screen time)
  • Use headspace stories to fall asleep

The Mystery of Post-Assignment Blues and How to Recover the Joy

You’ve got to the end of the semester or the academic year, and you’ve submitted your assignments, survived your exams… it’s all done, phew!

Wait what! Where’s the elation, the euphoria? This is very confusing!

During the stress and struggle of the days leading up to deadlines, we imagine how wonderful life will be after the work is done! The relief, the joy, the freedom!

Yet strangely sometimes we don’t feel as ecstatic as we had imagined. We expected to feel just great. What happened to all those good feelings, what a disappointment!?

Time and time again I hear students describe this as an anti-climax, a feeling of emptiness; sometimes even feelings of anxiety, as if you’re standing on the edge of a precipice.  

But since submitting my dissertation last month I’ve been in a weird limbo. My executive dysfunction has got quite bad because I have no urgent deadlines, so I can’t even bring myself to do the things I really want to do and instead just daydream about them all day. So trying to get myself unstuck has been a bit of a struggle.

Anonymous student

Please don’t beat yourself up about not feeling as you expected to. Let’s consider what might be going on, and what you might do about it:

The crash in mood is a comedown from all that adrenalin. This is a very real phenomenon; it happens all the time. If you’ve been in a heightened state of excitement and alert for a while, you’ve been pushing out that adrenaline (and dopamine), you’ve been using up your resources, the batteries can get pretty flat. The higher you were and the longer you stayed there, the more intense the comedown.

Solution: That flat feeling is your system recharging, and the neurotransmitters, particularly dopamine, are restocking. Don’t fight the feeling, accept it, rest up, pamper yourself, sleep. It will pass, and you will soon feel much better. I call this ‘cognitive override’, you might say to yourself:  I’ve been working my socks off, and achieved so much, I’ve made it through. This feeling won’t last – it’s just my nervous system recovering, I will feel better once I’ve recharged.

You’ve got used to having all your time structured around the work you had to get done, you’ve had a purpose, now you’ve got all this empty space and that feels weird. Life feels empty – you don’t know what to do with all this time on your hands, the days ahead feel like a vacuum.

Solution: You’ve got so used a particular state of alert and focus. When the situation changes your nervous system doesn’t know how to come out of that, just yet. You need a bit of time to get used to the new situation and become convinced that there really is nothing to do but chill for a while. And then when you’re ready, to begin to discover what you want to do next.

There’s a feeling of anxiety, you’re on a cliff edge, about to step into the unknown. This fear of the future is understandable – suddenly there’s more uncertainty than you’re used. You’ve been in a place where you always had the next goal in front of you, the next task. Now it all seems more uncertain.

Solution: Accept the feelings, as natural, give yourself space, time to think about the future, accept that uncertainty is a part of this major transition in your life. So maybe the uncertainty of not knowing is the feeling you get just before you discover something new.

So, what next? Once you’ve had a chance to recharge those batteries, give yourself permission, a bit of space, to be uncertain. Take a bit of time, to reconnect with yourself, and your surroundings; rest, take a walk, talk to friends, meditate. In this space of not knowing exactly what will happen next, let yourself rediscover the sense of freedom, the excitement of new possibilities…

Kindness is the New Rock and Roll

I wish I’d come up with this aphorism, because it nicely sums up an important piece of wisdom (credit goes to the band that used it as the title of their last album, and a song on that)

We are in Mental Health Awareness Week – hosted by the Mental Health Foundation. The theme is kindness. They rightly say that: in times like these when the world feels upside down, Kindness is the way to turn things the right way round.

“We all know that being kind is the right thing to do but did you know that kindness is good for you? A little act of kindness can boost your mental health, reduce stress and it can cheer you up to think of someone else – not forgetting, of course, to be kind to yourself. It is a path to a society that better protects our mental health”

https://www.mentalhealth.org.uk/campaigns/mental-health-awareness-week

They point to research evidence for the positive impact of kindness on protecting and improving mental health. Their survey has shown that almost three quarters of UK adults say it’s important that we learn from the coronavirus pandemic to be more kind as a society. Also almost two-thirds of UK adults say that being kind to others has a positive impact on their mental health.

Psychologists have long shown that kindness to others (altruism) also has a positive effect on the giver (Fehr & Fischbacher, 2003; Kurzban, et al., 2015; Wang, et al., 2020).

There is evidence that accessing states of caring and compassion have a profound healing effect on us (Gilbert, 2010) and there appears to be a evolutionary neuro-biological basis for this (Porges, 2011).

Based on ancient wisdom, a growing body of research suggests that kindness & compassion meditations activate these healing systems within us. These meditative practices can be effective as part of the treatment of a wide range of mental health conditions and promote physical and emotional wellbeing (Graser & Stangier, 2018; Hofmann, et al., 2011; Shonin, et al., 2015).

Here is a short introductory guided meditation to help cultivate this state of self healing. Please read the guidance below before you try it.

Please read the important guidance below before you begin
  • This guided meditation requires active engagement and participation, so while it can be calming, it does ask for some mental effort
  • A bit of perseverance is likely to pay off, with a bit of practice the positive effects of meditation increase
  • If you find it difficult to settle and follow along with the guidance, then you might need a bit more brain-training with a breath practice
  • By using the meditation, you are taking responsibility for your wellbeing. It is not a substitute for counselling or treatment. It is an educational and self-development resource
  • Meditative practices have been shown to offer powerful tools for mental health and wellbeing by helping to develop enhanced emotional and thinking skills. They are not a quick fix and require effort and practice
  • Meditation is not usually suggested as mental health first aid. It can be very helpful in managing difficult emotions, yet this skill takes time to build. I think when you’re feeling anxious or unsettled, there are lots of other helpful things you can to do first, for example here is a calming exercise which I have used with many people (link opens in dropbox where you can directly play the file or download it for offline use)
  • Of course if you are acutely unwell then please get appropriate support, make yourself safe, and come back to this practice when you are feeling stable enough to engage with it
  • I hope you find this meditation helpful, feel free to get in touch with any feedback

References

Fehr, E. & Fischbacher, U., 2003. The nature of human altruism. Nature, Volume 425, pp. 785-791.

Gilbert, P., 2010. Compassion Focused Therapy. Hove: Routledge.

Graser, J. & Stangier, U., 2018. Compassion and Loving-Kindness Meditation: An Overview and Prospects for the Application in Clinical Samples. Harvard Review of Psychiatry, 26(4), pp. 201-215.

Hofmann, S. G., Grossman, P. & Hinton, D. E., 2011. Loving-kindness and compassion meditation: Potential for psychological interventions. Clinical Psychology Review, Volume 31, pp. 1126-1132.

Kurzban, R., Burton-Chellew, M. N. & West, S. A., 2015. The Evolution of Altruism in Humans. Annual Review of Psychology, Volume 66, pp. 575-599.

Porges, S. W., 2011. The Polyvagal Theory: Neurophysiological Foundations of Emotions, Attachment, Communication, Self-Regulation. New York: W. W. Norton & Company.

Shonin, E. et al., 2015. Buddhist-Derived Loving-Kindness and Compassion Meditation for the Treatment of Psychopathology: A Systematic Review. Mindfulness, Volume 6, pp. 1161-1180.

Wang, Y. et al., 2020. Altruistic behaviours relieve physical pain. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), 117(2), pp. 950-958.

Breathe

During the current lockdown there is a lot of good advice out there. Our contribution here is just a small practical thing that you can do to help reduce stress and increase wellbeing. There is strong evidence that stress levels can have a significant impact on our immune functioning.

This is a short guided meditation. The visual element is just to add flavour, it is OK to close your eyes during the practice, if you like. At just under 8 minutes you can pop this on anytime you have a bit of time to spare.

Mindfulness isn’t the same as relaxation, but is a very good way of building wellbeing if practiced for a time. A very common misunderstanding is to expect to have an ‘empty mind’ or feel more relaxed (which may or may not happen). So if there is agitation or lots going through the mind, then there is no need to suppress anything, just observe what’s there.

Meditation is not first aid for anxiety. It can be very helpful in managing anxiety (and other difficult emotions) yet this skill takes time to build. I think when you’re feeling anxious or unsettled, there are lots of other helpful things you can to do, for example here is a calming exercise which I have used with many people (link opens in dropbox where you can directly play the file or download it for offline use).

Managing Exam Stress

Image by kmicican from Pixabay

Needless to say, one of the key things in managing exam stress is the actual study you do. So of course, starting early and preparing well is going to be very helpful. Once you’re at or near the actual exam the challenge is more about optimising things as much as you can, with whatever your level of preparation.

Another important area is specific study, revision and exam skills. You will be developing these throughout your time of study, together with your academic confidence generally. At the time of the exam there are a number of recommended strategies around the specifics of dealing with the exam paper: for example, read the exam questions carefully, make sure you understand the question. Make a few rough notes or brainstorm just to get some initial ideas and to get that inner process started. Start with a question you feel the most confident in, to get as many marks in the bag as you can, and get things going. Here are some tips on managing the exam preparation and revision.

Here, let’s focus on what you can to do to manage your emotional state (anxiety, wellbeing): Getting your state right will optimise everything else. Being in a good state has longer term and short term factors. There are things you can do in the time leading up to your exam, and on the day.

General self-care: Looking after yourself, investing in your wellbeing will pay off and be a more sustainable strategy. There’s lots of good advice on improving well being on this blog and elsewhere. Here’s a brief reminder of some of the practicalities for getting the best out of yourself:

Regular exercise: in any shape will help. Little and often, doing something you like doing. There is lots of evidence to suggest a strong positive impact on mood and cognitive functioning.

Eating & Nutrition: This includes the usual advice, eating plenty of vegetables and fruit. Avoid high sugar and highly processed foods, complex carbohydrate (Low GI, sustained release is better). Avoid excessive caffeine. Alcohol in moderation, avoid drugs. Drink plenty of water.

Some kind of meditative activity: this can include things like mindfulness or yoga. Mindfulness is a great way to build resilience and develop emotion management skills as well as enhance cognitive processes. It tends to work cumulatively, rather than as first aid in an anxiety situation.

Sleep hygiene & Routines: sensible use of screen time (avoid excessive use, avoid at bedtime and definitely not in bed!), avoid caffeine in the evenings. Read, listen to music, relaxing sounds, or an audiobook at bedtime.

The night before: Staying up late (or all night!) can sometimes work as a short term solution when you have to hit an assignment deadline (most of us have done this at some point, hopefully got away with it, and vowed not to leave things to the last minute again!). But is not a sustainable strategy for studying. And for exams it will not be helpful, even if you manage to cram lots of knowledge into your head, you probably won’t be in a fit state to deploy that to effectively. So be kind to yourself, and get some rest the night before.

Let’s talk about managing anxiety: The days before and during the exam can be challenging for most of us. On a very practical note: Get organised and show up early, get things ready the night before, and get up early so no there’s no need to rush around getting more wound up.

Anxiety is a normal response to stressful situations. In fight or flight mode our adrenalin system kicks in and is there to provide additional resources when there is a perceived danger situation. This works really well where we need to deal with situations of physical threat, but is less effective when we have complex tasks to deal with (studying, thinking, writing assignments, exams, job interviews, first date etc.).

A small amount of adrenalin can be helpful in giving us a bit of alerting energy. However, too much of it will cause a drop in productivity. There is an optimum range for this. So as adrenalin levels go up, initially performance increases, however it soon tapers off and begins to drop as adrenalin increases.

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Yerkes and Dodson, Hebbian [CC0] *Derived from the Yerkes–Dodson law)

Here are some tips to manage your state during the period leading up to and especially on the day. With performance anxiety there is usually a cycle: feeling anxious – negative thinking – more anxiety – more negative thinking. Interrupting this at both points (thoughts and feelings) is a good strategy to manage anxiety, stop it spiralling further, and even begin to turn it into a positive cycle (feeling calm – increasing confidence).

Manage unhelpful thought patterns. Watch out for catastrophising thoughts. Remember: thoughts are not facts. Thoughts with a negative bias amplify stressful feelings. Instead, try saying something like: “I’ll do my best, staying calm and focusing on the task will help me to get the best out of myself”. If you think you should have done more, earlier on then there is not point in beating yourself up. Better to approach this with self compassion: “OK I could have done better, I can learn from this, and improve things in future”.

Learn to use calming strategies. There are a range of good ways to settle anxious feelings, using the breath is a powerful way to calm things. Here is a breathing technique that you could try. This audio file is a breathing exercise which lasts 6 minutes, the link opens in Dropbox where you can directly play the file or download it for offline use. We are very interested in getting feedback so please feel free to let me know how you get on with it.

Learning to Breathe

Selye, H. The Stress of Life. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1956 (2nd Revised edition 1978)

Yerkes, R. M. & Dodson, J. D. (1908). The relationship of strength of stimulus to rapidity of habit formation. Journal of Comparative Neurology and Psychology, 18, 459–482.

*The Yerkes–Dodson law suggests that there is a relationship between arousal and performance. originally developed by psychologists Robert M. Yerkes and John Dillingham Dodson in 1908. The law dictates that performance increases with physiological or mental arousal, but only up to a point.
This law states that a relationship between arousal and behavioural task performance exists, such that there is an optimal level of arousal for an optimal performance. Over – or under-arousal reduces task performance.
This graph shows a version of the Yerkes–Dodson law, it leaves out that hyperarousal does not seem to adversely impact simple tasks.