11th May, 2017

Three exercises to manage your mental fitness when you feel the exam pressure rising

By Rachael S

Preparing for exams is like an athlete preparing for a race – it isn’t just about the technical revision, it is also important to look at the whole picture – diet, sleep, down time for rest and recuperation, and mental preparation. We know stress can be a good thing – it can certainly give an athlete the boost they need to get across the finish line, but like anything too much can be a bad thing and can derail the best efforts and intentions.

In this article I will share three things you can do to support your mental health whilst you study, and three steps to take if you feel your stress levels are rising and affecting your ability to study.

But before I talk about what you can do to manage your stress, I want to explain what happens in your brain when you are too stressed and why this is important.

One brain – two minds

Think of yourself as having one brain but two minds - the first part is our intellectual mind (the left pre-frontal cortex). When we are in this part we are positive, wise, and will make the best possible decisions at any given time. So obviously this is where we want to be!

The second part is our primitive mind (the limbic system) and this is the part that controls our fight or flight response – our survival instinct. This part is really useful when we face life or death situations such as facing a wild animal like a tiger, but the thing is we don’t really face many life or death situations anymore. But guess what? Your primitive mind still reacts in the same way.

Those pesky negative thoughts

So say you start thinking about your revision and your mind drifts to negative thoughts – you think about all the work you have to do and you don’t know how you are going to get through it, you might think that you’re not smart enough, you’re going to fail, and lots of other negative thoughts like that.

Now you start to feel the stress build up. You might notice it – that ball of tension in your stomach, your heart rate is increasing, your muscles are tensing, you can’t focus on anything, you can’t sleep, or you get stuck doing unhelpful things like spending too much time on Instagram or Snapchat.

Exam Prep – it’s coming to get me!

This is happening because although your intellectual mind sees the exams as what they really are, your primitive mind sees them as life threatening as a tiger attack! Now all it wants you to do is fight, run away or freeze in the face of this imminent danger, and that usually results in unhelpful behaviours like organising your study plan over and over but not actually doing any study, leaving things to the last minute, or just not being able to focus on anything at all. Another unfortunate thing is if the primitive mind is in control it also reduces our intelligence and our ability to cope with life. Not so great when you’re trying to study for your exams is it?

But there are things you can do to keep you in your intellectual mind so you can perform at your best.

Three tools to support your mental health

Like I said at the start, just as an athlete has a whole load of tools in their kit bag to ensure success, you have too. The three main ones are:

1. Sleep

I can’t emphasise this one enough, and this is because during sleep, particularly when we dream, we clear out the stress and anxiety built up during the day. It has been found that even one poor night’s sleep can affect brain function. So if you do anything I would recommend getting on top of this. I like these great tips from Harvard Medical School.

2. Exercise

Often when you are studying you think you don’t have time to exercise, or you can put it off for another day, but exercise is so important for three reasons:

  1. It releases positive neurotransmitters and hormones (like serotonin, the “feel good” hormone) which make you feel happier, braver and able to cope better with the stresses of life (like exams!).
  2. It helps to relax your muscles, and when that happens it sends a message to the mind that it can relax too.
  3. It makes you smarter! How? Because when we exercise we grow new neurons and pathways in our brain, and there are reports of students in America increasing their grades by doing regular exercise. One student said he went from getting B’s and C’s to A’s and B’s just by exercising before class every day.

How much exercise?

Aim for aerobic exercise where you are puffing a bit and find it difficult to talk for about 25-40 minutes, 3 to 4 times a week. If you did some exercise every day that would be a bonus, but don’t put too much pressure on yourself if that seems too much. Even going for a walk for 10 minutes can help boost your mood.

3. Keep doing things you enjoy

It’s very tempting to put on hold all your hobbies, stop seeing friends or doing anything fun whilst you are revising because you don’t have time for it. Obviously it is important to devote adequate time to your revision, but to stop doing all the things you enjoy will have a detrimental effect on your stress levels. Because when we do things we enjoy, we release those positive neurotransmitters that keep us happy, healthy and confident.

So fit in some enjoyable activities into your schedule –your mind and body will love you for it!

Three steps if you feel the Stress building

Sleep, exercise and fun activities support your mental wellbeing, but what do you do if you feel the stress building up and you can’t focus or concentrate?

I’m now going to share a process based on my hypnotherapy sessions which can help. Even if you are pretty good at staying focused and on top of things, incorporating this into your daily practice will still benefit you.

Step 1: Write down positive thoughts

Write down all the good things that have recently happened or are happening in your life, or all the things you are grateful for. Think of 10 things if you can, and make sure you write them down. It could literally be as small as you enjoyed your walk this morning, or it was great seeing your best friend on the weekend.

The reason for this is also based in science – if you are thinking about good things you can’t be in your primitive mind because the primitive mind is always negative. I had a client who suffered from panic attacks, and when they felt one coming on they remembered their hypnotherapy sessions and started thinking about all the good things, and it worked! They were able to stop the panic attack.

Step 2: Work out the next step

Think about your “To Do” list. What one small thing would make the most difference to your happiness right now? The reason why this question is important because often the stress builds up when there is too much to do, so what can happen is you get stuck and do nothing, or the work you do is ineffective (the headless chicken scenario).

It could literally be “open my maths text book to page 7, and start the first example question”. Think about the next step right in front of you, not the end result. Because taking one step at a time will get you working towards achieving your goals.

Step 3: Listen to a relaxation/mindfulness meditation

Doing this will get your mind into a calm mental state we call “trance”. The reason why this is useful is that it allows access to the subconscious mind, where you have the potential to make powerful positive changes. It also helps to clear the stress out of your system.

There are a lot of different Apps or relaxation/meditation downloads to try. Whatever you choose I would recommend it is at least 20 minutes long. I have a free relaxation download which is approx. 30 minutes long. It is focused on reducing stress and increasing confidence, but you will find benefit for whatever you need help with right now.

Remember though, just like an athlete you don’t become good at something overnight – you have to practice at it. So putting the above into practice on a regular basis will help you deal with your stress and get you thinking positively, acting positively, and performing at your best. Good luck!

Author Bio

Tricia Maitland is a Clinical Solution Focused Hypnotherapist practicing in Bath, UK. She also sees clients over Skype. To find out more or to get in touch please go to www.soulstreamhypnotherapy.co.uk

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