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Study Zone


Keep calm… and carry on breathing

Jackie Durham outlines how you can best prepare for and cope with exam stress

February 2018

In a recent PQ, I focused on mindfulness as a way of creating a little peace in a generally busy and stressful world. I also discussed how we could use mindfulness to help with exam nerves. If we add breathing and relaxation techniques into our stress busting we can really power up our campaign!
Learning techniques to control the breath can be incredibly powerful (in yoga we call this ‘pranayama’), but it can also be very demanding with some of the more sophisticated techniques taking years to master.
However, from our point of view, basic ‘breath awareness’ is a perfect starting point – simply becoming aware of the breath and using it as a focus for the mind is very effective. It only takes minutes, can be practised anywhere quiet (eventually you can learn to do it anywhere), and you can be seated or lying down. It will also deliver a good night’s sleep and/or help if you can’t sleep or you wake up in the night stressing.
Let’s have a look at how to practise basic breath awareness. If you think you’d prefer to breathe in a sitting position, make yourself comfortable with your spine straight and head sitting perfectly aligned on top of your spine. You may find it easier if you support yourself by sitting against a wall; alternatively, you can sit on a chair with your feet flat on the floor. With your palms facing up, place the back of your right hand on the palm of your left, allowing the fleshy bits of your thumbs to touch.
Consciously relax your shoulders, feel the length of your neck as it grows out of your spine, relax your jaw and softly close your eyes. Do not clench your teeth together or screw up your eyes – this is supposed to be relaxing! Breathing always through the nose, sigh out a breath, then breathe normally for a few breaths.
Very quickly you should start to feel more calm and relaxed, so now is the time to bring the awareness to the breath itself. Begin to watch your breath, noticing sensations as the breath enters and leaves the body. Be aware of the coolness of the fresh clean air as it enters your nostrils, the warmth of the stale air as it leaves your body.
Notice the rise and fall of your abdomen and chest as the air enters and leaves the body. It’s absolutely essential that you do not try to change your breath in any way, simply tune into your own breathing pattern. After a while you may find yourself wandering off and losing the focus on watching the breath – that’s fine, enjoy it. But if negative thoughts come into your mind, don’t engage with them, let them float away on your next out breath and then bring your awareness back to watching the breath. Very occasionally, focusing on the breath in this way can make people feel a bit queasy or even panicky. If this happens stop the focus on what’s happening and simply breathe calmly in and out through the nose for a short while and then return to practice another day.
If you prefer to try the exercise from a supine position (lying down), wrap up warmly, place your legs hip-width apart and allow your legs to roll out to the side. Relax your buttocks, feel the heaviness of your lower body. Have your arms a good distance away from your body, palms facing up. Consciously stretch out your neck, relax face and jaw (allow your jaw to hang open, no one can see!) and close your eyes. Be aware of the weight of your head and arms, feel that you couldn’t move a muscle, even if you wanted to. Practice watching the breath as above. Notice in particular the effect of relaxing your buttocks and allowing yourself to sink into the floor, when we are tense we often ‘perch’ on our buttocks without realising it. When you can tap into this awareness and learn to relax your physical body, lots of things become easier.
Once you are comfortably practising this basic breath awareness, you can begin to add in other elements such as a little silent chant (a mantra) which you can coordinate with the breath. One I like is “breathing in, I calm my body; breathing out, I calm my mind”. Repeat as long as you feel comfortable. This is a great technique if you are feeling panicky or can’t sleep and can be done literally anywhere. A good mantra when lying down (do not try to co-ordinate this one with the breath) is “My whole body feels warm… and heavy… and relaxed”; repeat slowly for many rounds.
To sum up, the Jackie Durham ‘CIMA’ approach to stress busting is:
C – create space in your mind to just ‘be’.
I – inhale positivity and exhale contentment (“I am well”, “I am happy” or “I am confident”, “I am calm”, etc).
M – be mindful of the moment and appreciate the peace you are feeling right now.
A – acknowledge any negative or unwelcome thoughts but let them go on your next out breath.
• Jackie Durham, CIMA

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