Hi Flinders Fam,
This week I’m bringing you part two of my unofficial exam revision series: Tame Your Brain! Last week I went through some top evidence-based revision strategies to make the most of your memory and information processing abilities. In weeks 12 and 13, the Student Learning Support Service will be hosting revision workshops and activities in The Commons on level 2 of the library, so come along to get some hands-on help revising wisely! Check out the SLSS FLO site for more information.
Dr Gareth and I talked all things how to tame your brain during this stressful period. How can we manage end of semester stress, how do we improve our focus and concentration, and how we create a good routine to ensure our brains don’t overload themselves? Let’s get into it!
How do we manage end of semester stress?
First, we need to separate out the physical tension stress from emotional stress. If you’re someone who carries stress in the body like me, you might get stomach troubles or lots of tension in the shoulders – then you’re going to need some strategies in place to manage that.
Progressive Muscle Relaxation
Progressive muscle relaxation is when, either seated or lying down, you tense and then relax all the different muscle groups of your body. It takes a few minutes to do the whole lot, but by the end of it you tend to feel quite relaxed.
You can pick an exercise that’s generally quite relaxing like yoga or Pilates, but exercise in general, say a walk, a run, or a swim, is going to keep your muscles happy and healthy.
Plus, if you’ve just been studying, that period of exercise is going to give your brain the time and space to process that information, so it’s also a really important part of memory consolidation.
As far as the psychological side of the stress management, especially those moments when you feel like its overwhelming and you can’t get everything done, breathing techniques are probably one of the best strategies. The goal is not to achieve a perfect state of relaxation, but a reduction in your stress levels so you can go back and work out what you need to get done and get into it.
There’s a few techniques, one is square breathing. Imagine a square, you’ve got breathe in for a count of four on one corner, breathe out for a count of four on the next corner, then breathe in again, and breathe out again. Navy Seals use this one during periods of high stress. The goal is not to take stress away, but to achieve a focused state amidst stress.
But there are other techniques we can use. Just breathing in for a count of five and out for a count of five, keeping an easy rhythm is good. Another is to try to breathe through your nose. There’s a bunch of benefits to putting air through your nose rather than your mouth. Also try to breathe into the stomach rather than the chest.
These are also useful to do not just during periods of revision, but when you sit down in the exam room. Spend a minute doing some square breathing, or breathing in and out for five seconds, it will help you improve your focus and concentration during the exam. If you practice breathing to develop a focused state in the weeks leading up to the exams, then by the time you drop into the exam scenario and repeat that same routine, it will drop you back into that state. If you don’t practice, but try to do it in the exams, it may have the reverse effect.
There is also a reasonable proportion of people for whom breathing and relaxation techniques will have the opposite effect. If this is you, bursts of vigorous exercise might be the thing you need to do. I would suggest to those people that doing a few burpies or star jumps for a few minutes before the exam, it paradoxically might put those people in a more focuses state.
Try a music app
The science on this isn’t great, but there’s an app called BrainFM. They’ve designed background music to elicit and support certain states: a state of focus, a state of relaxation, and sleep. When I put that on, I’m able to maintain maybe a two- or three-hour state of focus.
If you use other music, make sure it has as few lyrics as possible and is not disruptive. Something you are very familiar with works well (but don’t ruin favourites by listening them too much while studying!)
How can we hack our brains to improve focus?
One technique you can try is the state of flow, otherwise known as being ‘in the zone’. It happens to all people in relation to some activity, many of us have had an experience of being intensely focused and concentrated on the task at hand. The rest of the world falls away, our worries disappear, time seems to stand still, and nothing else seems important or relevant. It happens to sports people, or performers, or people studying!
It’s associated with being a very pleasurable state to be in. It’s associated with positive feelings and increased positivity and wanting to engage in that activity again.
However, it’s a bit trickier to feel pleasure when studying! But we can still get that feeling of being totally in the zone and unaware of all the other stresses we have at the moment. You can spend a lot of effort trying to chase the experience of being in flow without making it. But you can still experience good focused states and there are things you can do try to enter something approximating a flow state.
- Pick a clearly defined task. Rather than sitting down and saying, ‘I’m going to write an essay’, say, ‘I’m going to do all my references for this essay and take notes in this book’.
- Pick a task that’s not super easy but also not too hard. It needs to be a task that will push you but not frustrate you. This goes back to that idea of chunking up a larger task into smaller tasks. You might not feel like you can do a whole assignment, but you probably do feel capable of doing something like reading references, so start there then your ability to do the rest of the tasks will increase.
- Remove as many distractions as possible. That might be people, social media, other assignments, food – a bunch of things! Take them out of that space so there aren’t opportunities for you to do anything other than the task at hand.
- Create a pleasurable routine that gets you into that positive state. Maybe you start your morning with a cup of tea or yoga, or you make yourself some cereal. Try to go into the study process in a neutral or positive emotional state.
If you combine those factors, you’ll increase the likelihood of getting into something approximating a flow state.
And don’t worry that you won’t get any work done if you’re not in a flow state, because you can! Even at your most distracted, you can probably get some work done, even if its 70 or 70% of what you might do during flow. And all of those steps for getting you into flow are still setting up a strong and focused environment to study in, even if you don’t get into flow!
Use stress: it’s not all bad!
There’s a term, eustress, which is basically positive stress. In fact, if we had zero stress we wouldn’t do anything, we’d just be on the couch with zero incentive. A lot of stress is good and motivating. It lets us know when something is important to us. It lets us know when we need to do some work.
As much as possible in this period of the year, try to use stress as an indicator that you are in the right place. Try to use it as the motivator to wade into whatever it is you need to do. Often we use stress as a signal to escape, but in this context escape isn’t going to help you. It isn’t going to get the assignment written, it isn’t going to get the exam done, and it’s not going to benefit your future self either. As much as possible, use it as an indicator to wade in.
You don’t need to escape all stress!
Sometimes a little bit of stress can be the thing that gets you into a really productive state. Plus, with a little bit of stress, the feeling of relief you get when you finish is much greater. It’s closely tied in with our reward system. It’s an excellent source of motivation, but it does require a bit of guidance. Try to tame you stress!
And if you are overwhelmed, use some strategies to dial it back. Don’t stay in a state of stress for long periods of time! If you need to, see someone from Health, Counselling and Disability Support if you think your stress is becoming too much of a negative force.
How do we create a good routine?
This is a very cognitively and mentally demanding time of year and you want all of your mental energy to be consumed by your study: by learning, writing, preparing, and doing the best work you can.
Routine is important because it puts on autopilot all those other aspects of your life: when you’ll go to sleep, when you’ll eat, when you’ll catch up with friends. If you can develop a routine in relation to all the little things in your life, then you allow the bulk of your mental and psychological capacity to be allocated to the study rather than trying to make decisions about the minutia of your life. It’s about putting a bunch of stuff on autopilot for the time being while I take this priority task on board.
Remember that this period is just one of those times when you have to accept that it’s going to be an intense time, but it’s temporary! For this limited period of time, lean in and set yourself up to be able to manage it as best as you can. Then, when it’s over, you can lean back out again, breathe, and get back to old routines.
We talk a lot about work/life balance and self-care, which is good, but we often give people the sense that they’re supposed to sustain everything they were doing before plus this extra load of study, and that’s unfair. It’s okay to dial back. Don’t dial back on everything, but these things are important, but know that these things will naturally emerge again afterwards. All of these things you love doing prior to this intense period will come back!
Remember why you’re here!
As a last point, when everything is feeling big and overwhelming, take a few moments to remind yourself why you’re here at uni and the life you’re trying to build for yourself or your family. Try and keep that in mind because that version of you that’s living that life will be hugely grateful to the you now you sat down and tried to manage as best as they can during this period.
Remember, this is all temporary!
For more, you can find lots of excellent exam revision and stress management tips at the Health and Counselling Wellbeing Blog, in fact, Gareth has a whole series about it!
Finally, don’t forget that the Student Learning Support Service are running exam strategy workshops during weeks 12 and 13 in the Commons on level 2 of the library. Check out the timetable on the SLSS FLO site.
If you feel like exams or end of semester stress is getting too much, reach out to Health, Counselling and Disability Services to speak to a counsellor.
Good luck everyone!