It’s that time of year again, when my classmates and I find ourselves preparing for the dreaded final exams. The experience of preparing for and taking my final examinations is often times overwhelming and draining. Stress levels go up, sleeping becomes a distant memory, and fear of performing poorly plagues the mind. Uttering the phrase, “I have to study for finals” tends to elicit a typical response from other people (“You poor dear”, “Oh, my. Good luck…glad it’s not me!”)” which tends to only fuel the belief that it is the most stressful time of the academic year.
Luckily, there are age old ways to change the experience of finals week. Taking a mindful approach to the upcoming exams can reduce stress, improve memory, increase restful sleep, and essentially help your performance when it comes time to actually taking the final exams. Here are some tips and tricks on how to take on final exams week, mindfulness-style.
1. Take a deep breath- Take as many as you need. Taking a deep breath and focusing all your attention on your breathing is the quickest way to soothe your sympathetic nervous system. Anxiety about upcoming tests can trigger your sympathetic nervous system which is also known as your fight-flight-or freeze response. The nervous system doesn’t recognize the difference between anxiety caused by being chased by a saber-toothed tiger and anxiety caused by final exams; it kicks in all the same. The parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) does the opposite job of the sympathetic nervous system and calms you down. Taking a deep breath (or several) activates your parasympathetic nervous system and signals your sympathetic nervous system to let it know that all is well (there is no saber-toothed tiger). If you aren’t sure how to take a deep breath, here are some deep breathing exercises you can try. When anxiety about upcoming exams grabs a hold of you, remember, breathe deeply and let your nervous system help you return to a state of ease.
2. Be mindful of your thoughts- Notice what your mind is saying to you about final exams. “I’m going to fail!”, “I don’t know the material well enough”, “I don’t have enough time to study”, “I hate taking tests!” Whatever mantra your mind keeps repeating to you, see if you can create some space between you and those persistent and often times loud voices in your head. The truth is that the more you pay attention to your thoughts; the more you are able direct your mind in a direction that is helpful. You may consider using this popular Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) technique to stop the negative mind chatter and replace the mantra with truthful statements like “I have been studying so I will do well on my final exam”, “I am prepared for finals”, “I may not like taking tests, but I know that is what I need to do to pass the class, so I accept that finals are a part of my higher education”. Another thing to keep in mind is if you have done the reading and assignments throughout the semester, then you will most likely do well enough on a final exam to pass the class, so don’t sweat it.
3. Focus on the moment- Take in the experience of finals week one moment at a time. If you find it difficult to focus your attention onto the present moment, don’t worry, you are not alone. The human mind is programmed to rehash the past and worry about and plan for the future; it’s kind of our built-in survival mechanism. All it takes from us is a little practice to be mindful of the moment. Check out this website for mindfulness exercises that you can practice daily, or the Austin Mindfulness Center website for a free e-course that you can practice weekly.
In this moment you can decide to focus all of your attention onto studying. This means placing yourself in an environment that is conducive to learning. Instead of studying in your room with the television on in the background, try going to the library instead. Find an environment where your chances of being distracted by your friends, pets, and/or children go down. If you have to study where you live, make it clear to yourself that you are not going to self-distract by completing your to-do list. (Oh, look, the dishes are piling up in the sink, better go clean those, and then I’ll hit the books… but wait, the floors are a mess, better sweep that up now…). Set aside the time to be with your books, notes, and study guides. While you study, observe the pages you are reading, making sure you are focused on the sentences and the words so that the information is received by your mind. We’ve all experienced that moment when we reach the end of a page and realize we have no idea what we just read because we were thinking about something else. When you study mindfully, the information is retained more fully by your brain.
Once you arrive in the moment of taking the final exam, use all the same techniques you have practiced while studying. Focus your attention on each question, do your best to not get into a hurry or get distracted by anxious thoughts, read each question carefully, and give the final exam your undivided attention (remembering to breathe and be mindful of thoughts).
4. Choose your drugs mindfully- You may think that drinking a lot of coffee is a good idea when it comes to studying; however the side effects of high amounts of caffeine may increase the anxiety and irritability felt during final exams week. If you are worried about your mental acuity, try substituting coffee with green tea and taking a supplement like ginko biloba. The combination of ginko and green tea improve concentration and memory by oxygenating the brain. Read more about the other health benefits of combining green tea and ginko here.
Avoiding alcohol around final exam time is also important for your mental health. It may be tempting to reach for the bottle of wine or beer (or that bottle of hard liquor) to reduce the anxiety that you may be feeling around finals week, but if you want to give your mind the best chance to assimilate the study material, then you will be better off resisting the temptation. Excessive alcohol consumption has been shown to destroy brain tissue and interfere with memories being encoded into long-term storage. So if, you want to retain the information you are studying so you can remember it during the final exam, then you may want to reduce or eliminate your alcohol consumption. Nicotine is another drug that can have negative effects on your memory because it reduces the amount of oxygen that your brain receives. This article describes in more detail the detrimental effects of alcohol and nicotine on your memory banks.
5. Catch Some Zzzs- You might think staying up really late and cramming for your final exams is a really good idea. Unfortunately, this is seldom the case. The mind requires proper amounts of sleep for optimal performance. Getting enough sleep will ensure that your mind has had the proper time to encode the material you have been studying into your long-term memory banks. Having enough sleep also reduces stress and improves your ability to concentrate. Make time to study throughout the days leading up to final exam week. The night before your final exam review the information one last time, then put your notes away and go to bed early! If you have trouble falling asleep, try some of these relaxation techniques to help quiet down your frontal lobe. Also, avoid alcohol, caffeine, exercise, or other stimulants right before bed, especially electronic stimulus.
Final exams don’t have to be the stress inducing and soul sucking time of year everyone (including myself) imagines them to be. Taking a different perspective to final exams week and not getting lost in the jabber of your mind can transform your experience for the better. Remember to inhale, watch your thoughts, pay attention to what you are studying, stay away from memory leaching drugs, get plenty of rest, and finals week will be a breeze. Most importantly, if you find that you cannot adhere to all of the suggested tips above (as I often find myself not adhering to my own advice, finishing up my studying long past midnight), try not to be too hard on yourself. Set your intention to do your best to approach finals week mindfully and remember: You got this!
Written by Tanya Ricketts
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Here you will find articles contributed by members of our team. We hope to provide helpful information here to inspire mindful living and general wellness. The information provided here is not a substitue for professional mental health advice, diagnosis, or treatment. If you need to speak to a professional regarding your mental health, please make an appointment.