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Top tips for dealing with exam stress and preventing burnout

14th November 2013

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With end of term exams approaching in the next few weeks, Silentnight’s sleep expert Dr Nerina offers the following advice to help you get a good night’s sleep. 

1.    Avoid nutritional stress

Eat healthily and stay well hydrated. Snack healthily to maintain blood sugar levels so that your brain is able to absorb information.  Avoid caffeine after 2pm so that you can optimise sleep quality. 

2.    Take regular breaks

Our ability to concentrate runs is cycles of roughly 90 minutes.  After this time the working memory in the prefrontal cortex shuts down and we stop retaining info.  Even a five to ten minute break can help to ‘unload’ the working memory so we come back to the task with renewed focus.  Get up and move around, eat a piece of fruit, avoid checking emails and going on the internet – the aim is to give your brain a complete rest.

3.    Engage a different part of the brain

Related to the above, give yourself a break by doing something totally different with your brain such as juggling, using a hula hoop or even playing darts.  Again, helps to empty the working memory.

4.    Get good sleep

Practise good sleep hygiene, wind down before you go to bed by reading or watching something easy.  Don’t study in bed and try to have at least 1 hour free from technology (Facebook/Twitter included) before getting into bed.  Learn how to power nap.  Researchers have shown that even a five to ten minute power nap at some time between 2 and 5pm can significantly enhance cognitive performance.

5.    Awareness

Pay attention to any ‘unusual’ symptoms that have started to pop up such as headaches, insomnia, IBS, appetite changes, skin problems, tearfulness, anxiety or depression.  These could be signs that you are not coping.

6.    Support

Related to the above, get some support.  Who can you talk to?  Make sure you have good support strategies which might range from going to the gym and letting off some steam to talking to a close friend or relative or keeping a journal.

7.    Take a deep breath

If you find yourself feeling overwhelmed and anxious, stop whatever you are doing and take a deep breath from your belly.  As you exhale, imagine you are blowing out a candle flame and make the exhalation long and slow.  This immediately has a calming and stress-relieving effect.

8.    Practise ‘the worst possible scenario’

We can become overwhelmed when we don’t allow ourselves to confront the anxieties and fears 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 ‘could I live with this outcome?  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. 

9.    Manage perfectionism

Recognise your limits and know when you are going over them. If possible, set yourself realistic targets, learn how to ask for help and learn how to say no when the pressure starts to reach unhealthy levels

10. Positive strokes

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  - take time out to notice even the small things that have gone well, e.g. getting a seat on a train, or a nice cup of tea or text message.  Research shows that people who practise this sort of exercise are healthier and more able to cope with stress and adversity.

If you follow these handy tips while you are revising for tests or exams, you should be able to sleep soundly during this stressful period. Make sure you get organised and plan ahead to avoid late night revision and cramming sessions. Good luck!

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