Monday, 25 April 2022

Coping with test anxiety / mind blanks

As exam season gets underway in Scotland, there will be many young people feeling under immense pressure and fearing that they are not good enough or that they may mess things up. 

Most of us have experienced the chilling feeling of going into an exam and our mind going blank. This is what we call a 'freeze' response which is part of our body's system to protect us when we feel threatened. "We may feel anxious, pumped up, unable to relax and struggle to focus and the freeze response kicks in," says Professor Ewan Gillon, counselling psychologist and clinical director of First Psychology. Here are some of Ewan's tips for coping with mind blanks and exam/test anxiety. 

Leading up to the exam

Prepare by doing practice questions and plans. This will make the exam situation feel more familiar and less anxiety provoking. Learn how to recognise what the question is asking for and how to formulate a plan to tackle the question. It's amazing how many people fail exams because they waffled about something insignificant rather than answering the question. Give yourself 5 minutes' planning time for each question so that you can plan what you are going to cover in your answer. 

Before the exam – on the day

Give yourself plenty of time to get organised. Ensure you have everything you need, get to bed on time the night before so you have a good sleep, have a good breakfast, hydrate and get there on time! Don't stress yourself out by being late. It does not give you a good start to your exam and can lead you to panic. 

During the exam

Get settled and organised and listen to any instructions you are given before the exam. Turn over the paper when you are instructed to do so. You may feel anxious and think that you can't answer any of the questions. This is not unusual and it won't be true. Take 15-20 deep breaths while thinking about something that makes you feel happy and relaxed. You could think of your favourite calm place, a programme you like to watch, some of your favourite music, etc. Then return to the paper and read the questions carefully. Decide what you are going to answer and in what order. It's always best to get started with the easiest questions first to get your mind into gear and feeling a bit less stressed. Leave the hardest to last, but ensure you leave enough time to attempt them.

Once you have decided what you're going to do first, write down some of the words that you remember about the topic. Then read the question again and use the words and anything else that springs to mind to write a plan. Then get writing!

It can be easy to get sidetracked when in the exam room. Seeing other people working away with apparently no worries can be daunting and anxiety provoking. Remember, you do not have any idea what is going on in their heads or the quality of their writing. Try to focus on your own experience and let other people get on with theirs.

If you have another mind blank, do the breathing trick again and try to identify four words that can help you start your plan. More will come to you as you start planning. 

After the exam

It's tempting when you're on exam leave, to hardly emerge from your room. Make a real effort to do something to get out and about from time to time. Plan short and long breaks and write them in your diary. Some examples are: take a walk or a cycle, go to the gym, get a coffee with a friend, meet up with a group of friends, get your hair cut, etc.

Your brain cannot work tirelessly for hours at a time. Break times not only allow your brain a chance to digest the information that you have been working on but they also provide a sense of perspective and help you keep in touch with your friends and other elements of your life too. These are all important for overall wellbeing!

Further information

If you're a parent or guardian of a young person who is currently preparing for exams, sign up for our free webinar 'Supporting Young People During Exam Season' taking place on Thursday 28 April from 12-12.45pm BST. Find out more and book your FREE place today!

Thursday, 14 April 2022

Ways to empty the stress bucket

If you’re not familiar with the term ‘stress bucket’, it’s a metaphorical bucket that fills up with different types of stresses that you carry around with you and was developed by Dr Douglas Turkington and Professor Alison Brabban in 2002. By identifying what our stressors are, we can create coping strategies and ways to empty the bucket.

There are many things in life that can create stress such as work, financial pressures, health concerns or relationship issues. Each person will have their own individual types of stress and there are different symptoms that can arise, including:

  • Anxiety
  • Feeling of overwhelm
  • Poor sleep
  • Change in diet
  • Headaches
  • Lack of concentration
  • Heart palpitations
  • Stomach problems
  • Poor memory
  • Anger

Ways we can empty our stress bucket

As more stress enters our lives, the bucket keeps on filling up, so we need to put strategies into place to reduce our stress levels.

Firstly, we need to identify our sources of stress. Make a list of everything that is causing you worry. This may seem difficult at first because we often push our troubles to the back of our mind, but it’s important to confront our fears so we can spot the triggers.

Think of ways in which you can reduce your stress. Imagine each coping strategy is a hole in your bucket and as you practice them, the levels in the bucket reduce. Some great exercises include:

  • Breathing exercises, particularly the box breathing method. As documented by the National Center for Biotechnology Information, studies show that “diaphragmatic breathing is an effective relaxation technique in complementary and alternative medicine, with beneficial effects on physical and mental health”.
  • Create healthy sleep patterns by going to bed and waking up at a reasonable time. By keeping the times consistent, our bodies are more likely to adapt to the routine.
  • By eating a healthy diet and exercising regularly our bodies are in a much better condition to enable us to deal with stress. 
  • Connect with close friends and family or a healthcare professional and talk about how you’re feeling. Just by opening up and speaking about our problems we can release some of the stress.
  • Enjoy some ‘me time’ so you can properly switch off from work and other sources of stress. Whether it’s a trip to the cinema, a long walk in the countryside or a hot bath listening to your favourite music, these activities that make you feel good will release endorphins into your brain and help you cope with stress.
  • Practise gratitude daily as this will train your brain to think more positively and be more mentally prepared to tackle the things that make you feel stressed.

Once you put your coping strategies into action, you’ll start to feel more equipped to deal with your sources of stress. For example, if your workload is causing you concern, don’t be afraid to speak with your manager to see if there is any way that they can help. Alternatively, if you have money worries, consider asking for a pay rise, apply for a higher paid job or find ways to cut back on your spending.

Wednesday, 6 April 2022

The best foods for managing stress

It goes without saying that we need food to survive but what we eat also plays a significant role in both our physical and mental health. Our bodies need a wide variety of vitamins and minerals found in nutritious foods to ensure our brain and body function properly.

Not only does the food that we eat impact our mood, which can also be a trigger for stress and other mental health issues, but when we’re suffering from stress it can also affect our food choices. It’s important that we make the correct food choices to relieve any symptoms of stress.

These are some of the reasons why we might not always opt for the best types of food:
  • Busy lifestyles mean we have less time to prepare and cook nutritious meals and the temptation to snack on unhealthy foods or buy takeaways and convenience foods becomes much greater.
  • A lack of understanding about nutritious food and its benefits means we might not always make the right meal choices.
  • Mental or physical illness can prevent us from prioritising our health.
  • When we’re feeling stressed, we tend to eat foods that are comforting and although they might give us a short-term boost, they can actually exacerbate our symptoms. 

To maintain optimum mental wellbeing and ease any symptoms of stress, there are certain foods that you should keep to a minimum:
  • Sugars and carbohydrates that are found in chocolate, biscuits, sweets, cakes and sugary drinks can increase blood sugar levels and intensify stress and anxiety.
  • Caffeinated drinks such as coffee, tea and energy drinks are stimulants that can make you feel even more anxious or stressed.
  • Alcohol not only acts as a depressant, but it can also affect our sleep.
  • Processed foods are packed with sugar, fat and salt which can lead to heart disease, obesity and high blood pressure as well as impacting our mental health.

Foods to manage stress

Natural foods that are packed with minerals and vitamins are great for combatting symptoms of stress and boosting mood. Also, try and eat foods that will support your adrenal glands - these glands work extra hard when we're stressed so supporting them can help keep you balanced. 

  • Vitamin C which is found in most fresh fruit and vegetables is stored in the adrenal gland and used to make cortisol (a hormone produced by the body when we're stressed). 
  • Magnesium is an important mineral that metabolises cortisol and helps both the mind and body to relax. It can become depleted when we're stressed and this can lead to symptoms of fatigue, anxiety, insomnia, and make us more susceptible to stress. Magnesium-rich foods include: bananas, spinach, avocados, broccoli, dark chocolate, and pumpkin seeds. 
  • Bvitamins can help support the adrenal cortex and hormone production. Good sources include dark leafy vegetables such as kale and Savoy cabbage, wholegrain, nuts and seeds. 
  • Protein is present in many foods and it helps keep us full for longer. It is therefore essential for controlling blood sugar levels and preventing mood swings which can stress and deplete our body. Protein rich foods include: eggs, lentils, almonds, chicken, peanuts, turkey, quinoa, tuna and salmon. 

Further reading

For more about stress and how to manage it, download our free pdf booklet >