Eat, sleep your way to exam success
FOR millions of students across the globe, exams mean a time of gloom and doom.
Increased workloads, pressure to succeed and the number of hours spent studying can send stress levels through the roof.
And the knock-on effect to their health and grades, can be catastrophic.
A survey by children’s charity Childline revealed 96 percent of the 1,300 students questioned felt anxious about exams and revision.
In addition, 59 percent said the pressure to do well was one of the primary triggers of stress.
When it comes to tackling exam season, one of the most effective ways to reduce stress levels is ensuring you get enough rest.
Sleep expert Dr Nerina Ramlakhan said giving your body and mind a chance to relax and recuperate will not only improve concentration, but will also help reduce anxiety.
Here, she reveals her top tips for helping students prepare for exams and lower stress levels...
Avoid nutritional stress Students need to eat particularly healthily during revision and exam periods and stay well hydrated.
So, as hard as it may be, avoid takeaways and microwavable meals and cook fresh, balanced meals.
Snacking is fine if you are consuming healthy snacks.
Eating well will maintain blood sugar levels so that your brain is able to absorb information.
Students should also cut out caffeine after 2pm to optimise sleep quality.
It is a huge myth that drinking coffee and ‘pulling an all nighter’ will help us to revise for exams.
Take regular breaks Our ability to concentrate runs in cycles of roughly 90 minutes.
After this time the working memory in the prefrontal cortex shuts down and we stop retaining information.
Even a five to ten minute break can help to ‘unload’ the working memory so we come back to the task with renewed focus.
After 90 minutes of work or revision make sure you get up and move around. Go to get a healthy snack such as a piece of fruit and a glass of water, or simply get up and stretch for five minutes.
Don’t check emails or go on the internet during your breaks or this defeats the aim of giving your brain a complete rest.
Get good quality sleep We should always practice good sleep hygiene routinely, however this becomes even more important during stressful periods, and times when we are pushing ourselves to our limits, be it physically or mentally.
Get used to winding down before you go to bed by reading or watching something easy.
Don’t study in bed and have at least one hour free from technology — Facebook and Twitter included - before getting into bed.
Students should also learn to power nap if they don’t already.
Research shows that even a just five to ten minutes at some time between 2pm and 5pm can significantly enhance cognitive performance.
Take a deep breath It is as simple as that. If you find yourself feeling overwhelmed and anxious, stop whatever you are doing, put your bare feet on the ground and take a deep breath from your belly.
As you exhale, imagine you are blowing out a candle flame and your exhale will be longer and slower than usual.
This has an immediate has a calming and stress-relieving effect.
Repeat this a few times and you could even work some physical movement into this, such as a stretch or squatting as you breathe in.
Engage the brain Another reason to take regular breaks and change activities is to engage other parts of the brain.
To ensure you use different parts of the brain, do something totally different during your break.
Try some yoga for example or teach yourself a new skill such as juggling or hula-hooping.
Keep to a physical activity though, watching television or checking social media on your phone won’t have the same effect, as they won’t empty the working memory.
Be aware of your body Be aware of your body and wellbeing during exam season and don’t ignore unusual symptoms.
If you start to suffer with issues such as headaches, insomnia, IBS, appetite changes, skin problems, tearfulness, anxiety or depression then these could be signs that you aren’t coping.
All though they can be put down to stress and they may be temporary, they are still issues that need addressing or they could become worse. If addressed they are also less likely to have a negative impact on that important exam.
Lean on your support network Stop and think who your support network is and then remember to use them.
Talk to them regularly as they could give you some great advice and feedback that could be invaluable.
Remember that some of these will have been in the same situation as you previously and may have learnt some useful lessons they can pass on to you.
Also have good support strategies that you can do independently, such as going to the gym or walking the dog.
Confront worst case scenario We can become overwhelmed when we don’t allow ourselves to confront the anxieties and fears that may be lurking around in our subconscious.
So bring them into your conscious mind by getting a pencil and paper and brainstorming all of the things you are afraid might happen if things don’t go the way you hope.
Really use your imagination even if it feels a bit ridiculous.
And then ask yourself: live with this outcome?’
Or, ‘what could I do if I don’t pass this exam?’
Again, write out every possible alternative option you can think of and build contingency plans.
Having a ‘ plan B’ will relieve that overwhelming feeling so you feel less stressed and can take more information in.
Manage perfectionism Recognise your limits so you’re not too hard on yourself.
If you stop and think about your limits you will notice if you are going over them.
We can all be aspirational and we can all strive to achieve the best but we should also be realistic.
Learn how to ask for help and learn how to say no when the pressure starts to reach unhealthy levels, even if you are telling yourself no. Doing your best is all that people will expect from you and you can be content with yourself if you have tried your best, but we all have our limits that we must recognise.
Give yourself a pat on the back Acknowledge when you’ve done something well and give yourself something to look forward to every day — even if it’s something small like taking time to listen to your favourite upbeat piece of music.
Stay optimistic even when things look bad and take time out to notice even the small things that have gone well, e.g. getting a seat on a train, a nice cup of tea or a nice text message from someone.
Research shows that people who practice this sort of exercise are healthier and more able to cope with stress and adversity.
— Daily Mail.
Giving your body and mind a chance to relax and recuperate will not only improve concentration, but will also help reduce anxiety.