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Study Zone

Dump that stress!

Keep calm and carry on being mindful… Jackie Durham explains how to prepare for and cope with exam stress

November 2017

In a previous article I talked about the power of positive thinking and how we can harness this to support and direct our CIMA studies. I also mentioned that I am a qualified yoga teacher and that this shapes some of the ways I look at the world but, more importantly, offers me techniques for dealing with some of life’s trickier or tenser occasions. In a series of three articles I am going to look at some coping mechanisms that will help you calm exam nerves but also help focus your mind so that you study and learn more effectively. I’ll be drawing on my experiences of mindfulness, relaxation and breathing techniques.
First of all, why do we need these techniques at all? I believe the vast majority of us would probably benefit from taking a moment every now and again to just breathe, empty our full minds and mentally refresh. The stress of juggling work, study and family/leisure plus exam-day nerves can be at best wearing and at worst debilitating.
It may well affect our performance both at work and in our exams. We’ve probably all experienced the panic that sets in when one feels there’s not enough time in the day, things aren’t ‘going in’, the questions don’t make sense or don’t look like the ones in the text books. All of which prevents us from studying and learning effectively and that’s even before any exam day nerves set in! However, with a bit of practice and a different mindset we can take hold of that panic, we can focus our minds, learn to concentrate, control exam day nerves and therefore live up to our potential.
This is where mindfulness comes in. While this is a huge topic, at its most basic it simply means living ‘in the moment’. That is, being present and aware, accepting that there’s no point dwelling on negative experiences in the past (because they are behind us) or worrying about the future (because that’s yet to come). Instead, we need to focus on the here and now and use this to control our ‘chattering mind’. Now as a long term strategy for life, this isn’t the best approach – indeed we do need to reflect on the past to learn lessons for the future – but as a technique for focusing the mind on things that matter it really works.
Some of the biggest things which hold us back with regards to exams are various versions of negative thinking:
• Irrational thinking and self-criticism (“I’m useless at exams. I will never pass – even though the evidence may well suggest you are more than capable”).
• Irrational beliefs (“If I don't pass, my family/friends/partner/employer will lose respect for me”).
• Irrational demands (“It’s no good unless I pass the first time every time”).
• Irrational predictions (“I know I am going to fail so there’s no point trying”).
Mindfulness can free you from some of these irrational, circuitous worries and help you overcome negative thinking. So, how does that work? By learning how to bring ourselves back to the present moment, we can create a space to breathe and become calm. We can give ourselves a mental break from worry and stress. We can harness mindfulness to improve our focus, concentration and ability to retain information. This is achieved by learning to pay attention to the present moment using simple breathing, relaxation and meditation practices.
I’ll be covering practical techniques for these in future articles, but for now let’s pay attention to how to be ‘mindful’ in just about any situation. I find one way to ‘tune in’ is when doing a mundane task where my brain would normally wander into negative territory. So, walking the dogs – a pleasant activity but one where I don’t need to engage my brain and so frequently find myself ‘worrying’. This ‘mind chatter’ is never positive, it’s draining. So, to stop this, I focus on the ‘sensations’ created by what I’m doing, where I am, what I can see and hear and how that makes me feel – the feel of the sun, wind or rain on my skin, the squelch of mud or the firmness of crisp snow under my feet, the sights and sounds of wildlife, the smells of flowers or “the country”!
And most of all how that makes me feel. The answer is usually ‘good’ because, even on a bad weather day, it’s a job ticked off the list and I’ve had some fresh air and exercise. Use mundane tasks to practise mindfulness and give yourself a pat on the back for what you have achieved. It’s far too easy to become weighed down by an ever growing ‘to-do’ list rather than recognising what we have actually ‘ticked off’. Next time you are washing up, walking to work, watching your children play, try it.
Next month we are going to really power up the anti-stress campaign by linking some basic ‘breath awareness’ with mindfulness.
• Jackie Durham, CIMA

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