It's a cosmic joke that I should be writing about exam stress. When I was in college I was such a nervous examinee that they used to lock me up (or, more kindly put, deposit me in a room of my own to do my exams in peace).
Without turning it into an exam, I think a multifaceted approach to stress reduction is best. Mind, body and spirit are inextricably intertwined. Nourishing each enhances the health of the whole â and ups your chances of sailing through your exams on a cool breeze...!
A major cause of exam stress is knowing you are ill-prepared â not for lack of brains but because you have found it hard to concentrate on your studies.
Reasons may vary, from family problems to friendship/relationship difficulties to eating the wrong kind of food to buzzing about on caffeine to partying. Only you can ascertain what your particular combination of stressors is. If you are going through a hard time in ways that make it difficult for you to concentrate (e.g. stressful relationships), talking to a school or college counsellor or a trusted tutor can really help you over the hump. More about food and caffeine later! Partying â you know what to do! 8-)
First, though, it is crucial to look at the issue of time.
It's mid-April. Chances are you have a few weeks to go until your exams. You have time to do lots of work. The first thing is knowing, deep down, that you have that time and that you can use it well.
If you are a worrier, it can be tempting to frighten yourself with negative thoughts: 'I only have six weeks to go. It's too late to start now.' It is never too late! If you start, you can get through a lot of work in six weeks, or four weeks, or two weeks, or even in the couple of days before the last exam. Just don't procrastinate and leave it all till then, OK?
No matter what stage you are at, simply start studying NOW and refuse to stop.
It also helps to view time in increments of minutes, hours and days, not weeks. 'Six weeks' can feel like a tiny block of time, easily skimmed over like a stone skipping over water until Hey Presto! you are sitting in the exam hall. But within that six weeks reside whole hours and whole days you can use well.
Think in terms of minutes, hours and days. Take one hour at a time, one day at a time and the hours and days will add up to a lot of work. It's simply a time-related version of the old saw: 'Take care of the pennies and the pounds will take care of themselves.' Take care of the minutes, hours and days and the weeks will take care of themselves (and you will have banked a pile of knowledge!).
Another serious block to studying can be a difficult subject. It's amazing how many bedrooms get tidied at this time of year. Is that why it's called spring cleaning? When I was in school, instead of asking my physics teacher for help with my Leaving Cert. revision (vision!), I made endless mugs of hot chocolate and dusted my room from top to toe. It would have been infinitely better to approach him for help but I was too shy. Looking back, I'm sure he would have been delighted to answer my questions had I only asked. (I know now that my questions, which I thought were stupid at the time, haven't even been conclusively answered by physicists! Always ask. There's no such thing as a stupid question.)
So, if you find something hard, get help. To do so is not evidence of terminal thickness; it is an intelligent act. Ask a teacher or lecturer for advice, organise a grind â anything to get you going so you are not stuck at first base due to lack of comprehension. Once you understand what you're doing, studying becomes interesting and that interest drives you forward.
It also helps to create and stick to a realistic study schedule. If you're not sure how to go about it, look for advice. Some people (Gerry!) are genius at making study plans, so if you have such a treasure in your life, request his or her help. If you don't, check out study resources in your school or college, or search online for information on how to create a workable plan. It might help to be specific in your search: e.g. 'English exam study skills', as subjects can differ in the kind of attention you need to pay to them.
A study routine is soothing, all the more so if you organise your work space so that you have everything you need and it's comfortable, light, airy and tidy. Just don't substitute the making of a study plan for studying. If you're in danger of doing that, make a revisable skeleton plan and then get going on your exam work. Don't let creating a plan divert you from the Real Thing!
The body-mind is a continuum. The health of the mind affects the health of the body but the health of the body also influences your state of mind. Treat your body right and it will be a wonderful friend to you in times of mental and emotional stress.
Caffeine is hailed as the student's friend, but it not. It burns a hole in your pocket and your mind. It makes you more alert in an edgy kind of way but diminishes your concentration. It damages sleep quality and is directly associated with headaches, migraines, anxiety and panic disorders. It causes painful withdrawal symptoms (migraine, nausea, vomiting and paralysing fatigue) if given up cold turkey, so quitting needs to be effected slowly and systematically (1).
Cut out all forms of caffeine, including coffee, tea, decaffeinated coffee and tea, green and white tea, pu-erh, oolong, chocolate, guarana, ephedra and other herbal stimulants and observe how you feel. A little less worried about your exams, perhaps...? (N.B. If you want to quit caffeine, start now. It is not something to attempt close to your exams. If your exams start too soon, try instead to offset caffeine's effects by drinking plenty of water and other fluids in addition to your favourite caffeinated tipple.)
Keeping your blood sugar level stable is also key to calm concentration. Check out the following link: http://www.patrickholford.com/index.php/advice/healthconditionsarticle/136/ for tips on healthy eating for mood and concentration. It's written with children in mind but is helpful for grown-ups too.
I'd also suggest adding fresh vegetable juices, either home-made or bought from an outlet that sells them freshly made, to your diet, as they can really boost energy levels. Forego fruit juices, though; they can seriously disturb blood sugar levels, causing a boost-crash scenario that leaves you feeling worse off than before. If you're sensitive to sugars, carrot juice can do this too, so concentrate more on the greener juices, such as celery, cucumber, lime, etc. (2) Green foods, especially when organically grown, contain magnesium, a wonderfully calming mineral. Drinking pure water, preferably distilled, filtered or bottled, also helps to raise energy levels. Sprouted foods, available from The Hopsack, are fantastic energy boosters when eaten raw and they make a nice addition to salads and sandwiches. Incidentally, the one year I was not a basket case at exam time was the year I drastically cut down on coffee and ate lots of fresh, raw food from a salad bar near college in the weeks leading up to my exams. I was able to think a lot more clearly and panicked less.
Exercise and sleep are also essential to mens sana in corpore sano. Try to fit in a 30-minute walk every day, preferably somewhere green or by the sea so you can breathe deeply without enjoying a lungful of exhaust.
If you have difficulty sleeping, Celestial Seasoning's Sleepytime tea can be very effective. So can a supplement called Zenbev. Please ask the nice people in The Hopsack for advice, as lack of quality sleep can make studying much harder than it has to be. Also refrain from going online or watching TV too close to bedtime. The electromagnetic stimulation emitted from computers and TVs can seriously disturb your zzzz's.
Other supplements you may find useful â this time for energy levels and concentration â include the following: Viridian High Five Multi-Vitamin and Mineral Formula; Viridian High Five B Complex with Magnesium Ascorbate (both of which contain high levels of Vitamin B5 to support your adrenal glands and energy levels); Viridian or Solgar Magnesium Citrate for calmness; spirulina for energy; and Bio-Strath elixir as a tonic. Again, the lovely Hopsackers will be only too happy to advise you (3).
By 'spirit' I mean looking after the 'you' that exists beyond your exams. My friend Iain walked away with every prize in college. He studied methodically and hard but always took time to look after himself, to relax. He took an hour for lunch every day, making sure he left his study space and his work for the duration. He also saw friends in the evening. Others who spent 24/7 in the library failed where he succeeded. It's important to wind down so you are fresh enough to wind up again the following day.
I also think knowing what you want from your exams is key to doing well. Pushy parents can be a stress factor but parents or guardians (or others) who refuse to encourage you (in the name of not being pushy!) or disapprove of what you're doing can also cause great stress. The trick is to start listening to your OWN inner voice. What do YOU want from your exams? Do you want to go to college? Or get your degree? Or get a job? Or fulfil a creative dream or make loads of money? Work out what you want and use that as your internal motivator. It makes it a lot easier to apply exam survival tips if you know deep down what you truly desire and are prepared to honour yourself by going for it.
1. For tips on how to quit painlessly, go to http://www.teeccino.com/quitting.aspx, or check out Patrick Holford's book, How to Quit Without Feeling S**t , available from all good bookshops.
2.Patrick Holford has written lots of useful books on nutrition, some of which are available from The Hopsack (others can be ordered through The Hopsack or are available from bookshops). They are well worth checking out. Have a look at New Optimum Nutrition for the Mind and New Optimum Nutrition Bible for starters.
3.Check out the following Hopsack Forum entries for further advice on stamina and sleep, respectively:
Joined: Tue Feb 12, 2008 2:29 pm
Re: Stressing about exams?
Postby Rhoda-Mary on Tue May 12, 2009 2:08 pm
Apologies to anyone who failed to access the Patrick Holford diet and concentration link in the 'Body' section of the above blog. It's fixed now :)