Want to Overcome Exam Stress?

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When it comes to managing exam stress there is certainly no shortage of advice for students. What I have noticed, however, is that most of the advice that is on offer tends to focus on either exam prep or relaxation techniques. The idea behind this is that if students are better prepared and go into their exams feeling relaxed this will significantly minimize their stress levels.

While I wouldn’t necessarily dispute the importance of either of these areas, the fact is that exam preparation tips and relaxation techniques are dealing more with the symptoms of exam stress as opposed to its actual causes.

Contrary to what many people believe, much of the stress that students experience in relation to their exams is by no means inevitable, nor does it really derive from the exam itself. In fact, the roots of exam stress originate in the mind and more specifically, in the types of thoughts that are attached to an exam and the stories a student tells himself or herself in relation to their performance. This is incredibly normal, but it’s no fun for those who experience it.

While it isn’t possible to change the fact of exams or avoid taking them altogether, it is possible to get to the bottom of the stress surrounding an exam and to shift your experience of it. All it requires is a willingness to overcome the stress and an openness to explore your thought patterns and underlying belief systems. I’ve helped many students do just that.

If you would like some assistance in overcoming exam stress, I offer one-to-one coaching sessions as well as workshops for larger groups, so please feel free to get in touch with me at info@academease.org

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Give Yourself a Break

 

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Do you find it difficult to take a break from your work? I can definitely sympathize with this feeling. When I was a student I was extremely reluctant to take breaks and vacations for fear that I would fall behind in my work. I remember feeling like I had so much to do and was constantly running behind schedule. So I actually started to bring my work with me on holidays. Does any of this sound familiar to you?

What I learned was that mixing my vacation time with the expectation to complete work is a recipe for disaster. Not only did I not complete any of the work that I had hoped to do, I also didn’t fully relax or enjoy myself when I was on holiday either because I was plagued by ‘work guilt.’ So there was no actual benefit to going on holiday and afterwards, I would return feeling even more stressed out than before I had left. Ironically then, it was after I came back from a vacation that I felt most in need of taking one!

Our willingness to take breaks says a lot about how we view ourselves in relation to our work. When we are reluctant to give ourselves a break it is often because we don’t feel like we deserve one. There may be a sense of enormity surrounding the tasks we face and a belief that we haven’t made sufficient progress to warrant taking time off. So it is actually our own judgments that prevent us from taking breaks.

The tendency to judge ourselves is especially strong whenever we encounter a stumbling block in our work. Although it may seem counterintuitive, it is precisely in those instances where we feel least deserving of a break that we would benefit most from taking one.

 

Multitasking: The Opposite of Mindfulness

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Whenever the word multitasking is used, there is often a positive connotation associated with it. The fact that I can prepare dinner and chat with a friend on the phone while simultaneously ordering a book on Amazon is typically perceived to be a good thing. And so the assumption is that I should be happy that I am a good multitasker. Since the ability to multitask is viewed as such a valuable asset, it is not uncommon to find people referring to their multitasking skills on their CVs and in job interviews.

Despite the positive connotations associated with multitasking, being a multitasker is something that I consciously avoid. Attempting to juggle multiple tasks at once takes us away from the present moment, which is one of the core principles of mindfulness. Focusing on multiple tasks in a single moment creates a feeling of being scattered and pulled in several different directions. When we say no to multitasking, we allow ourselves to fully complete a task before moving on to the next. In so doing, we remain completely present in that moment and as a result, we end up completing tasks with greater ease and fewer accidents! It can also bring greater focus and enjoyment to what we are doing.

So there is a lot to gain in saying no to multitasking and there are several small action steps we can put into place to help overcome the urge to multitask. For instance, switching off our phones when we are working, designating set time periods in each day to check email, and also setting clearer boundaries between working hours and relaxation time. While these may seem like little things, they can all yield important results in helping us to stay in the present moment.

Overcoming Presentation Anxiety

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Let’s be honest, few people enjoy standing up in front of large groups of people and speaking. Whether it’s a short seminar presentation, a lecture, or delivering a conference paper, public speaking can feel like a daunting undertaking. Many studies have shown that people fear the prospect of public speaking even more than they fear death.

Over the years, I’ve come across many students who have a crippling fear of public speaking, and their resistance to delivering presentations in class is quite strong. They would do anything to avoid it, so much so that they may even neglect to show up for class on the days they are scheduled to present.

I do feel for these students and I wish I could tell them that public speaking isn’t an important skill to develop, but the truth is that it is an incredibly valuable skill for whatever field they go into. The good news is that the anxiety surrounding public speaking is something that can be overcome.

When working on this with students, the first place I often start is by asking them to recall the sensations they experience when they are presenting. Almost all of them have reported feeling their heart racing, palms sweating, shortness of breath, dry mouth and even shaking. All of this is very natural and is an indication that their fight or flight response system has been activated. From a mind-body medicine perspective, this makes perfect sense. The activation of the fight or flight response is how our body responds to perceived danger, and as public speaking demonstrates, the danger need not actually be life-threatening. This goes to show that the sensations of anxiety that some people experience during a presentation are a consequence of the stress that has built up in the mind.

We don’t often acknowledge how our fears affect the body, and in the case of public speaking, our capacity to communicate effectively. However, working through this piece of the puzzle is the single most important factor in overcoming presentation anxiety. The key to building up a more positive experience during presentations is to do the opposite of what would appear to come naturally in moments of high stress – and that is to consciously slow down. It may seem counterintuitive in the midst of a presentation to slow down, but once we appreciate how fear manifests in the body, the power of this approach becomes clearer.

This simple action of slowing down helps activate one of the quickest stress-busters that we have access to in any given moment, and that is our breathing. By consciously controlling our breathing through taking steady, consistent and slow breaths, we can instantly de-activate the fight or flight response system and in turn, minimize the uncomfortable symptoms that may arise during a presentation.

Presentation anxiety is not something people should have to live with. It can be overcome and I’ve seen countless people do just that. It starts with acknowledging the intricate connection between the mind and the body, and paying attention to how our thoughts may be impacting on us more generally.

Process versus Outcome

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One of the biggest challenges I faced as a doctoral student was a tendency to view the PhD as an outcome, rather than a process. In my mind, it was one enormous piece of work and unless I was done, or close to being done, I found it difficult to relax or rest. Even in those moments when I was not actively working on it, I felt like I couldn’t properly switch off. It was on my mind constantly. It was an exhausting way to spend four years, but somehow it seemed justified and I didn’t know of any other way to approach my work.

One of the consequences of viewing the PhD as an outcome was the feeling that I had nothing to show for entire days, weeks or months of work. Research often requires us to sift through articles and books in order to determine which ones are relevant, and undoubtedly some will not be. This is the equivalent of a scientist having to do countless experiments that fail before one succeeds. Even though I knew on some level that this is what my research would entail, I still held on to the expectation that it should be a simple and direct path; in actuality it is a series of uneven steps that – by its very nature – required me to go in fits and starts, and sometimes in circles, before I got to where I wanted to go. This is something I didn’t appreciate at all, and as a result I felt incredibly frustrated throughout.

Having met several doctoral students who have fallen into the same trap that I was once in, it seems clear to me that we need a better benchmark for assessing our progress when it comes to completing longer-term projects – a way where we can stop attaching to the outcome. So I started to think about strategies for how we might begin to approach big tasks as a process instead of focusing on the intended outcome.

The main tool that I’ve found to be quite useful is journaling. At the end of my work day, I spend a few moments writing out what I did that day. Not as a way to police or berate myself for not having done more, but specifically as a way to remind myself of the nature of the project, which cannot be completed in one day, but in a series of smaller baby steps. It allows me to feel forward movement, even on days when I get stuck and go in circles, because I can then start to acknowledge that this is just part of the process. What this does is build up some positive momentum and put me in a better space to recognize that I am on my way. It allows for the fact that it’s a messy road and not a straight one.

While we all know this on some level, I feel like it hasn’t been properly articulated, and hence I see so many students and colleagues frustrated with how they approach their work. It’s nice to know that something as simple as a journal can make all the difference in the world to our mindset. Adopting this technique can allow us to relax and leave greater space for the excitement and passion that drove us to dedicate years of our life and mental energy to such a big project in the first place.

What Makes You Valuable?

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‘If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster; And treat those two impostors just the same.’

The quote above is taken from the poem ‘If’ by Rudyard Kipling. I must admit that this line had confused me for many years. I couldn’t understand why Kipling was suggesting that we treat triumph and disaster just the same when we are taught exactly the opposite, that we should actively seek out opportunities to win in life and avoid disaster at any cost.

This is certainly what we are taught in academia. We are pleased when we receive high marks, proud when our books are published and celebrate when we obtain large research grants. But there is another side to this delight and that is the despair and disappointment that sets in when things do not go our way. When our marks are less than what we desired, when our manuscript is rejected and when we don’t get the research funding we applied for.

Although these might feel like entirely opposite experiences, there is actually some degree of overlap between the two. In both cases, that is the delight in our triumph and despair in our disasters, we have tied our sense of self to our achievements. One of the consequences of this is that our value and worth become entirely dependent on things outside of us.

While it is understandable to be delighted when things go our way and disappointed when they do not, neither should impinge upon our sense of self. For if we measure our value in relation to how much we achieve, we are setting ourselves up for a fall.

If we can begin to shift away from identifying ourselves with what we achieve, we will not only remove a major source of stress in our lives, it would allow us to reconnect with the passion and enthusiasm that drove us towards a particular path in the first place. It is easy to lose sight of this passion when we are busy chasing ‘success’.

It’s time to starting thinking of ourselves as valuable, not for what we do in the world, but simply for who we are, and to be grounded enough to weather our triumphs and disasters with an equal measure of grace.

‘I’ll Be Happy When…’

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How often do you find yourself uttering the words ‘I’ll be so happy when it’s done’? The ‘it’ in this sentence could be any number of things, but it usually refers to a particular project or task you are working on.

I found myself saying this seemingly harmless phrase all throughout my time as a student. First it was ‘I’ll be happy when my exams are over’ and then it was ‘I’ll be happy when my dissertation is done.’ By the time I reached the PhD level, I felt as though nothing could give me greater satisfaction than completing my thesis. Surely this was the moment when I could finally relax and be happy – after all, the PhD was the highest degree I could obtain and the culmination of several years of hard work, so what could possibly come next?

As soon as I had jumped over the PhD hurdle, I quickly found out that there was a host of further ‘I’ll be happy whens’ waiting for me on the other side: I’ll be happy when I land my first academic post; I’ll be happy when I publish my thesis as a book; I’ll be happy when I get my first major research grant, and the list goes on and on. It literally never ends, as there is always something else to reach for and something else to be done.

So waiting until things are crossed off a ‘to do’ list before relaxing and taking a breath is not a sustainable approach to work. It also makes us prone to ignoring the importance of enjoying life – even in the midst of writing a conference paper, marking, or whatever the task may be. Moreover, by placing so much emphasis on getting things ‘done’ and reaching our destination, it’s all too easy to overlook the satisfaction that comes from the steps we take along our path.

Coming to grips with the reality that there will always be things on my ‘to do’ list has encouraged me to stop saying ‘I’ll be happy when’ and to instead ask: how can I be happy now?

Being Present

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I remember when I was in school my teachers would begin each class by taking attendance. This would usually involve the teacher calling out the name of each student from a class list, to which we would respond ‘present.’ Although I didn’t give much thought to it at the time, taking attendance was an excellent way to start a lesson by bringing everyone’s focus into the classroom.

Taking roll call is not a common practice in higher education institutions. By the time a student reaches this level, it is usually down to them to decide whether or not to attend classes. In any case, since university attendance is generally quite high, there doesn’t appear to be much need to do a roll call prior to lectures and seminars.

Over the years, however, I’ve realized that physically showing up to a class by no means equates to being present in the room. Much of it has to do with the fact that nearly every student today carries a laptop to class. As we’ve moved away from handwriting to typing, a laptop is seen as an essential tool for learning. Yet, it’s also a device that people use in their leisure time. I can’t help but notice a surge in students who simultaneously type notes while skyping friends and surfing the web in the middle of a class.

The inability to focus is not just an affliction that affects today’s students. The tendency to be present without being fully present has become so widespread in our society. For instance, in restaurants, it has become more common than not to see half (if not all) of the people at a table with their eyes glued to their phones. Similarly, the tendency to walk whilst texting seems to be increasing. We seem to be perpetually distracted and completely incapable of focusing on one task whether it’s walking, having dinner or sitting in a classroom.

The inability to be present is deeply problematic. It means that we are less focused and as a consequence, more scattered in our actions and thoughts. It pulls us in several different directions, makes the tasks we are working on less enjoyable, and allows for a higher degree of accidents! It also detracts from our ability to interact with one another. So there are many good reasons to consciously work on our capacity to be fully present.

Although it may not be possible for instructors at university level to start doing a roll call, there are other strategies that can help students in bringing their focus into the present moment. This could involve getting everyone to switch off their devices at the start of a class; taking a few moments to centre and calm everyone before jumping into a lesson; asking students to consciously let go of any thoughts or concerns regarding what they were doing prior to the class and what they need to do after; or simply stating the intentions for the lesson at the outset. These simple strategies can also assist an instructor in getting into the present moment before a class.

Not only would this set a positive tone for each class, and therefore make the experience of learning more enjoyable, it would help create a habit of developing greater presence both inside and outside of the classroom.

How Do You Start Your Day?

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For many of us, the morning is far from our favourite time of day. We often dread the sound of our alarm clocks and wish that we could stay in bed for just a little bit longer. It also seems that no matter how early we wake up, there never seems to be enough time in the morning.

It’s no wonder then that mornings have a bad rep. Mornings have become associated with tiredness, rushing, and feeling overwhelmed as we think about all of the things we have to do that day.

It goes without saying that what we do in the morning is crucial in setting the tone for the day ahead. Yet so many of the things that have become part of our morning rituals actually make the day ahead more challenging.

This includes going immediately into work mode by checking our emails and text messages before we’ve even gotten out of bed; heightening our stress levels by watching or reading fear-based news; and drinking coffee, which gives us a jolt of energy but may simultaneously accelerate our heart rate and increase anxiety levels.

Instead of relying on these habitual morning practices, why not try to consciously ease into your day. So before jumping into work mode and reading emails, perhaps take a short walk outside. Studies have shown that consistent exposure to natural light can dramatically influence our productivity, performance and general health.

Rather than relying on coffee or tea for a morning boost, try drinking lemon water, which (in addition to other health benefits) has been touted for its capacity to stimulate the digestive tract.

And rather than reading the news first thing in the morning, perhaps save it for later in the day and read something inspirational or listen to some relaxing music instead.

Integrating these simple practices into your daily routine can dramatically reduce your stress levels and put you in a much better space to enjoy the day ahead.

How to Start and Sustain a Meditation Practice

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In one of my earlier posts (‘How Meditation Can Change Your Brain’) I explored the scientific evidence behind meditation. Despite the growing body of evidence in its favour, the process of beginning and sustaining a meditation practice can still feel quite daunting. As many reasons as there are to begin meditating, there seem to be an equal number of reasons and excuses not to.

I’ve found it quite useful to acknowledge this underlying resistance and confront it head on. With this in mind, I will discuss some of my own objections to starting a meditation practice and the strategies I’ve used to overcome this resistance.

1) ‘I’m too busy to meditate’

The first and most common objection to meditating is the feeling that we simply do not have enough time. As busy students and academics, there never seems to be enough hours in the day as it is, so how can we justify an additional item on our to-do lists?

Each day we take the time to do a number of tasks that we deem to be essential (such as eating, brushing our teeth, showering and sleeping), yet when it comes to meditating it can feel like a struggle to find the time. Very often this struggle stems from the perception of meditation as an optional indulgence – something which we can do when we aren’t so busy. The truth is that meditating can be of equal, if not greater, importance than these other daily tasks, and it is actually when we at our busiest and most overwhelmed that we would benefit from it the most.

I’ve often found that when it comes to starting a meditation practice, what is crucial is not the actual amount of time we dedicate to it, but the simple act of showing up to meditate on a regular basis. So even if it means taking just a few minutes at the end of each day to centre yourself and focus on your breath, this small action can go a long way towards developing a daily meditation practice.

2) ‘I’m confused about what to do’

 As meditating has become increasingly popularized, so have the range of different meditating styles and techniques. This often leads to questions, and sometimes confusion, over which methods work best. Should I meditate with my eyes open or closed? Am I meant to repeat a mantra while I meditate? Should I listen to music or is it best to have complete silence? Are guided meditations recommended or not?

Irrespective of these different meditation styles and techniques, what they all have in common is an emphasis on slowing down our thoughts and becoming more present. None are better or worse than others and the key is to find what works best for you. This may involve a process of trial and error. It could be that on certain days you enjoy meditating in complete silence, whereas on other days you may find a guided meditation more comfortable.

It’s completely ok to experiment with different methods and then decide which you prefer. The most important thing to remember is that there is no right or wrong, and it’s simply a matter of finding out what suits you best.

3) ‘I’m not good at this’

The final part of resistance to meditating derives from our ever present inner critic – the one which constantly tells us we aren’t doing it right because we can’t get our thoughts to stop. Herein lies one of the greatest misconceptions relating to meditation. The goal is not (and never could be) to push away all distractions and to stop our thoughts. Instead, it is to simply slow down the pace of our thoughts, and to become more aware. In so doing, we learn to observe our thoughts without judgment.

Because of our over active human minds, there will inevitably be days when slowing down our thoughts will feel more challenging and when we will succumb to distractions – this is inevitable and it applies to even the most experienced meditators among us. The key is to accept these ups and downs with patience and compassion for ourselves, and then to bring these same qualities into our daily lives, and in our interactions with others.

This raises an important lesson I’ve learned about meditation, which continues to fascinate me and also comfort me on the days when I feel most distracted. Contrary to what many people believe, meditating actually has very little to do with what happens on our meditation cushion. The judgments relating to how good we are at it are not only misplaced, they also overlook the fundamental purpose of meditating.

The objective is not to measure how long we can sit in silence for; instead, the purpose of meditating is to actively cultivate certain qualities within ourselves that we can carry out into the world.

I hope you have found this discussion helpful. If you have any questions or would like some more tips on how to start and sustain your meditation practice, feel free to email me at academease@gmail.com.