Before we get going on this weeks blog, we’d first like to say; congratulations! You’ve almost made it! 2020 has been a long, difficult and wide ride, but you are still here and still kicking goals. As you enter SWOT week and the exams beyond, it’s important to remind yourself of how much you’ve achieved and how far you have come.
This week we bring you an article that was first published in our October newsletter. We think it is super relevant for the end of semester so we’ve decided to adapt it for exam season.
It can be really hard to stay on top of your mental health, especially when things start to pile up. Indeed, recent research confirms what we all intuitively know; there has been a sharp decline in mental health since the start of the year. While much of this can be attributed to events like the pandemic, as students, we are a particularly vulnerable population anyway. Students have higher levels of psychological distress and lower levels of psychological wellbeing than the general population. So, if you’ve been finding yourself struggling leading into exams that is totally normal. That’s why this week we want to talk to you about how you can actualize your mental potential leading into exams and one way to do this is through improving your psychological wellbeing.
Psychological wellbeing is a term that gets thrown around a lot. Some define it as a fancy word for happiness, but it is a little more nuanced than this. After all, what makes someone ‘happy’? In the current literature, psychological wellbeing encompasses the positive aspects of the mental and emotional experience. It includes subjective feelings of positive affect (our underlying experience of feeling, experience or mood), life satisfaction, autonomy, personal growth and a sense of meaning. Importantly, while it is closely linked with mental illness or psychological distress, it is a separate thing. For instance, one can have high levels of positive mental health (wellbeing) yet still have a diagnosis of mental illness. Perhaps you have a diagnosis. Consider those times where you feel like you’re really on top of it, that’s your positive mental health coming into play. Similarly, one can be devoid of an ‘official’ diagnosis, yet still feel average most of the time. If this is you, there’s a good chance that your mental health is ‘languishing’; you are experiencing low positive mental health. Research has shown that higher positive mental health can lower our risk of mental and physical illness, whereas lower positive mental health can actually predict future mental illness. Consequently, developing and maintaining good levels of positive mental health and wellbeing is crucial for leading a flourishing life and protecting against future illness.
A practical, and potentially useful way of thinking about psychological wellbeing is as a state, wherein your resources, social, psychological and physical, are in balance with the challenges you face, social, psychological and physical. Sometimes, the challenges stack up, throwing the entire state off kilter. Maybe you have exams or assignments due, then your car breaks down, then you have a moody day and your friend snaps at you. How do you cope? Well, if you have high wellbeing you can successfully balance these challenges with the resources you have on the other side. The more resources you have, the more equipped you will be to weather whatever life throws your way. This is why it can be dangerous to have low wellbeing; when you face a challenge, your wellbeing can tip more easily into a state of poor mental health.
So, what counts as a resource? Your social support plays a big role, especially when faced with challenges too big to handle alone. But this is where good wellbeing habits can come into play, they are part of your personal resources arsenal. Practicing good habits can improve our mental wellbeing and tip the balance in our favour. Indeed, evidence shows there are a multitude of habits to choose from that help support our positive mental health and wellbeing. Examples include mindfulness activities, like meditation or mindful breathing, physical exercise (don’t worry, not the I-feel-like-I’m-about-to-puke kind), and psychological reflections like gratitude or goal setting. Below we have selected a few we encourage you to investigate and try out for yourself if you start feeling the crunch in the next month. If some don’t appeal to you, don’t worry! Everyone’s wellbeing arsenal is different.
If you haven’t heard of yoga, there’s a chance you might live under a rock (no judgement) and if you have heard of it, your ideas around what it’s all about might be a bit skewed. However, forget posing in front of a waterfall or becoming a human pretzel. Yoga is all about the connection between your brain, your body and your breath. At its core, good mindful yoga practice will help you build awareness about your body and mental state and help improve your attention and focus.
If you can, taking a class at a studio is the gold standard in getting started. There’s nothing like having the in-person support of an experienced teacher to show you the ropes. However, for the average student, studios can be expensive. A great way to give it a go for free is by looking on YouTube (we recommend “Yoga with Adriene” as a good starting point).
Meditation can come across as a little fringy, a little…alternative, shall we say? However, there is emerging evidence supporting its benefits on wellbeing. While there are many kinds of meditations, mindfulness meditation may help relieve symptoms of anxiety, and even cause measurable, physical changes to your brain.
Check out our previous article about mindfulness!
Essentially, mindfulness meditation involves sitting down and allowing thoughts to come and go without focusing or worrying about them. You pay attention to how your breathing feels, and pay attention to internal and external feelings, such as tension in your muscles, or quiet sounds outside.
It can be hard to do alone, so we recommended guided meditations to start. A great app for getting into mindfulness is Headspace. They have videos as short as 1-minute guiding you through mindfulness session.
Another way to practice mindfulness is through being mindful during your existing exercise routine. What’s that you say? I’m too busy dying to think about anything except how many reps I’ve got left. Well, that’s okay, we’re proud that you’re pushing yourself. However, not every session has to be ‘to failure’. Consider setting aside a few sessions to take a step back and focus on being fully present in the moment. Focus on your form, how your body feels going through each movement. Pay attention to your breathing, how does it change during the workout?
Perhaps, a slightly more relaxing example of this practice is the idea of mindful walking. This works well if you are not particularly active to start with as walking is a low intensity exercise that you can do anywhere. Consider setting aside 10 minutes and take a stroll around the office block or your local park. Notice how your body feels and moves as you walk. Stay present in the moment and if your mind wanders, bring it back to a sensation, sight or sound. Engage in all your senses and allow yourself to experience the world around and within you.
As exams approach and deadlines loom, sometimes taking time to organise your time can seem counter intuitive. However, investing a few minutes per day to organise your tasks can help to ease work-related stress, free up time so you can do things you enjoy and help you complete tasks more efficiently.
The great thing about time management is that it is scalable; you can plan for a month, a day or a single study session and you will reap benefits. In terms of university work, time management is all about knowing what you must do (assignments, homework or exams), when you must do it (deadlines) and how to do it (creating a plan).
Like time management, setting goals when you’re already busy can seem like a waste of time. However, also like time management, setting short-term goals can help you focus your attention and increase your confidence in reaching your long-term goals. An increase in confidence can help build self-esteem and lead to improvements in overall wellbeing. Remember how we talked about your resources arsenal? Well, that increase in confidence you get from accomplishing your goals totally counts toward that, so why not give it a try.
Take an example. Perhaps, you want to do really well in your exams, but you’re not confident about your prospects. This might lead to procrastination and anxiety. First, think about why you want to achieve this goal. Use this as motivation. Then break down this big goal into smaller sub-steps. To pass your exams, you know you need to study to get there, but how much and how often?
Start small and start SMART, that means:
- Specific: your goal should be clear and well-defined – e.g.: I will study for Research Methods for 4 hours this week
- Measurable: A good goal is one that you can ‘measure’ to see if you have achieved it or not – e.g.: I will time-log my study sessions and tick off each hour as I complete it
- Attainable: The goal should not be impossible to achieve – e.g.: I am working part-time but I know that I can find at least an hour each day during the week to work on this
- Realistic: It’s good to be ambitious, but be realistic about what is attainable for you – e.g. I know I don’t have long stretches of time so breaking down my study into hours is more realistic
- Timely: The goal should have a deadline – e.g.: By the end of the week I should have 4 hours logged in my chosen logging platform
As you achieve these smaller goals, you should gain confidence in your ability to achieve your larger goals. Before you know it, you’ll be acing your exams in no time and no (well, less) stress!