Archive for November, 2011

Sometimes when we get stuck on a question in the exams, we start having ‘runaway thoughts’ like “I’m going to fail this entire exam, I should have prepared for this topic instead of the other one, I’m so stupid, why didn’t I study harder?” etc etc. Sounds familiar to you? Sometimes we’re able to shrug it off and continue to focus on the exam. For some people, however, these negative thoughts continue to run over and over in their minds, resulting in greater anxiety as the clock continues to tick away.

A technique that some people have found useful when this happens is to literally tell yourself to STOP! Mentally shout STOP IT! to yourself or picture a STOP sign in your head to stop these thoughts from spiralling downwards even further. When I find unwelcome thoughts in my head, I sometimes picture a door and I shove all the unwanted thoughts out the door and literally slam the door on them! It helps to then take a few deep breaths and then go back to your exam paper.

Some people have also found it helpful to wear a rubber band around their wrist and to pull lightly on the rubber band when they get caught in runaway negative thoughts while saying ‘stop it’ at the same time. What this does is to create a mild sort of pain which helps to snap you back into reality and bring your attention back to your exam paper. Don’t pull too hard on the rubber band cos it’s not supposed to be some kind of ‘punishment’. Just a light tug will do the trick. So if you know you’re the kind who tends to flood yourself with negative thoughts during an exam, you can give the above techniques a shot and see if it works for you. Again, practice these techniques 10-12 times if you can before the exam itself so you can train your brain to respond to it accordingly.

Exams are literally right round the corner. I know many of you out there are wringing your hands and cramming as much information as possible in these last few days and weeks and guilt-tripping yourself for going online and checking FB and thinking maybe if you’re reading the counsellor’s blog then it’s not SUCH a bad thing, right? Well it most certainly is not cos today I’m going to share a technique that all of you can use for calming and focusing yourself when you freak out. 

The ability to calm yourself down and refocus in times of distress is one of the 7 key traits that resilient people possess, according to the authors of this bestselling book ‘The Resilience Factor’. I think I talked about debating with your negative thoughts, finding evidence for your distorted thinking etc before somewhere in the blog. In an exam situation, however, there really isn’t much time for this cognitive debate and that’s where calming and focusing comes in really useful. There are several different techniques you can try to calm yourself down and refocus and I’ll write about one technique a day so you can try the different ones and see which one works better for you.
The most scientifically researched and widely used way to calm and refocus is *drum roll* rhythmic breathing. We all naturally breathe rhythmically (at least I hope you do!) which is why we are of sound mind most of the time. Faced with a high stress situation, however, our breathing is often compromised. Scientists have researched and found that a 10 second breathing cycle works to activate our parasympathetic nervous system which basically tells our brain that there is no immediate threat and to calm down so you can think straight.
Without going too much into the theory, try this where you are now:-
1. Sit back in your chair and close your eyes. Bring your attention to your breathing. Take 2 or 3 ‘normal breaths’ and relax your shoulders.
2. On your next inhale, count slowly to yourself “one…two…three…four…”, filling your lungs with air and letting your abdomen push out naturally. Remember to keep your shoulders relaxed and breathe in through your nose.
3. On your exhale, count slowly again “one…two…three…four…five…six…” again keeping your shoulders relaxed and breathe out through your mouth.
4. Do this 10 times (or more if you want to) and then take 2 or 3 ‘normal breaths’ again. Open your eyes and continue with what you were doing.
Remember to pace your breathing so you don’t take all the air in at ‘one’ or release all the air at one go. It’s more about prolonged breathing than taking in as much air as you can at one shot. This simple exercise would only take you about 2 minutes so it’s something you can do before the invigilator says ‘you may start’ and in between when you feel stuck and panicked. Practice this several times before you step into the exam hall so it becomes second nature and takes the guess work out of it. Or come look for me at the counselling room and we can practice it together. 🙂
Image used with permission from Arvind Balaraman