4.3 Useful exercises
There are a number of strategies you can develop to minimise the effect of nervousness and anxiety on your performance. Some of them are practical study skills, and the others are related to your physical and psychological state. Their effectiveness will depend largely upon the level of your self-discipline in putting them into effect, although those people who feel that they are hampered to a paralysing degree should seek the extra counsel of Student Welfare Services.
Apart from following the suggestions made throughout the various chapters of this book, probably the most useful thing you might do is to practice in private so as to know the nature of what you are up against and the truth about your own abilities. If you are seriously troubled by anxiety it is quite likely that you are underestimating your own abilities and over-estimating the difficulty of the task before you. To take realistic stock will probably enhance your confidence and diminish the size of the threat as it appears to you. This self-knowledge will form a useful force of a de-mystifying nature.
It will certainly help you to develop the self-confidence which can overcome unproductive anxiety if you take the trouble to organise a revision schedule and break down the work involved into small manageable tasks. For people who feel very nervous, the smaller these tasks the better at first, because it is the sheer size of an undifferentiated mass of materials and exercises which can induce the mental fear and paralysis which often makes people frightened of even starting. The successful completion of a number of small tasks will give you a sense of satisfaction and even confidence on which you can build.
You might also practice submitting yourself to the specified conditions of an exam – but do it in gradual stages. Choose a question with which you feel reasonably comfortable. Start with a very wide time limit, taking almost as long as you wish, and work on a question as part of your general revision, using the exercise as practice in writing. When you have finished make a note of how long you took, then select a second question and try to do it in slightly less time. Keep this second shorter time as a target, then when you come to repeat the exercise in your next revision period, try to reduce the time again – until you finally reach the specified minimum of forty-five minutes or an hour.
It will also help if you try to overcome the fear of sitting before the exam question paper by practising doing this beforehand on your own. As we discussed in the last chapter, the best way to do this is by arranging for yourself a short version of a mock exam. Take one of last year’s papers, choose just one question dealing with a topic you have revised thoroughly, and see how much you can write in whatever time you would normally be allotted. Remember that nobody will see what you do, and if you are not particularly satisfied with the results you can make the attempt again.
If at first you can’t face the prospect of actually producing an essay (for instance) you might just practise quickly making essay plans – jotting down those topics which you think should be covered by a reasonable answer to the question. Then imagine that each one of these topics might form a substantial paragraph of argument. This might form the next step in your practise – fleshing-out an argument from the prompt of each topic. This is roughly what should happen in the exam itself.
Facing a blank page in the privacy of your own home will be a lot less threatening than doing so in an examination room. You might eventually be pleasantly surprised by how much you can produce in forty-five minutes or an hour. Keep in mind that in exams you are not really expected to produce work of the quality or quantity which would be possible as part of your coursework.
Don’t forget the reassurance which may be offered by working together with friends or fellow students. Many of them will have similar fears to your own, and discussing your feelings with others may well help to put them into perspective and bring them under control. Self-help groups can also be useful for other forms of exercise. You can for employ each other’s services to check your knowledge of basic facts and details. If you have prepared digests of your notes or created prompt cards you can ask one of your colleagues to test your knowledge of them by posing questions or checking your recitation of the facts. Turning your revision into a quiz of this kind may take some of the anxiety out of preparing for the exam.
4.4 Stress management
Most people suffer from minor symptoms of stress at one time or another, but in conjunction with examinations the problem can become very acute. What in normal circumstances might add a little creative tension to your activity can become quite debilitating, and it is important that you learn how to bring stress under control so that it does not impair your preparations and your performance in the exam. The first thing you might do is learn how to recognise it.
Stress can cause feelings of dizziness, weakness, nausea, headaches, a sinking feeling in the stomach, and all sorts of muscular cramps – especially in the back, shoulders and neck. People prone to stress often appear to have a hunched appearance caused by the repeated bunching of their shoulder muscles. It is also quite common for people to develop stiff necks or back pains caused by their not being able to relax properly.
If you feel that you are not as relaxed and calm as you are normally, you should realise first of all that a little tension around exam time might be perfectly normal for the reasons we discussed earlier. After that however, there are a number of things you can do to keep the level of stress to a manageable minimum, most of them connected with improving your physical sense of well-being. It is very important if you wish to operate efficiently in a mental capacity that you keep in good condition physically as well. It is simply not possible to study effectively if you are tired, stressed, or run down in any way.
Sleep is obviously one of the most important forms of relaxation available to us. It is a time when we should switch off completely and allow our body to recuperate, re-charging our physical and psychic batteries ready for the next day. Most people need between six and nine hours sleep each night, whilst others make do with as little as five or six hours, but perhaps ‘top up’ with brief naps in the late afternoon. The important thing is to recognise and supply your own personal needs in this respect.
The length of time we sleep is one thing, but many people recognise that the sleep needs to be of good quality. It will simply not be so effective as a restorative of your life forces if it is broken into brief periods interspersed with periods of fitful wakefulness. Try to make sure that you do not retire at night in an agitated or over-stimulated state of being. Organise your life so that you are approaching sleep in a state of tiredness and relaxation.
Diet is now widely recognised as an important part of our lives. Without being too puritanical or proscriptive it is also generally agreed that over-indulgence can have a bad effect on us. You will tend to become sluggish (and over-weight) if you eat too much. Just think how the experience of having a heavy lunch can make you drowsy and unproductive for the rest of the afternoon.
In addition to the amount, the type of food we eat can also have a serious effect on us. Too much consumption of heavy, fatty foods will generally clog up our systems and make us less efficient metabolically. People are often tempted to eat more if they feel anxious or stressed, so it is important to be as self-disciplined as possible in this respect. Avoid very big meals, eat lighter foods such as salads, and remember that over-indulgence with alcohol is likely to give most people spiritual as well as physical hangovers.
Exercise is one of the best ways to relax and relieve stress, even though this might seem paradoxical. This is because physical exercise normally promotes an uplifting sense of wellbeing. It will prevent you from becoming physically tense, dispel feelings of lethargy, and will help to keep your system in good condition. It is also likely to help you have good quality sleep.
Take the trouble to have some sort of exercise every day. Go for a walk, go swimming, running or cycling – especially if you are otherwise sedentary. Jogging, aerobics, tennis or any other form of vigorous activity will form an ideal break from your studies and will help keep stress at bay. Exercises of this kind will also help you to briefly take your mind off your studies, and you will be able to return to them feeling more refreshed.
Breath control is one of the most rapid and immediately effective ways of lowering stress. If you feel tense or agitated in any way, just stop what you are doing, sit or stand up straight, and take several deep breaths. You should breathe in powerfully to fully inflate your lungs and then exhale slowly, dropping your shoulders and allowing yourself to relax. It may help you to mentally count down from ten to zero whilst you are breathing out. Just repeating this process a few times can promote a surprisingly immediate sense of relief and a feeling that your stress is draining away.
Meditation is a part of some Eastern philosophies which seek to promote a sense of harmony and wellbeing in the whole person. The technique usually recommended is as follows. Adopt a relaxed and comfortable position with your back straight, close your eyes, and concentrate on some fixed point of reference. This might be a word or phrase which you say over and over again or an idea which you find comforting.
Alternatively you might visualise a particularly restful scene. Some people do this to the accompaniment of calm and soothing music and achieve a state of deep relaxation, after twenty minutes or so of which they feel spiritually refreshed. Rather like the other techniques described here, it is a way of calming yourself and promoting a sense of tranquillity.
Muscle relaxation is a physical version of the same thing, though in this case it is a very conscious effort to achieve a state of relaxation. What you should do is lie on your back on the floor and then take some minutes to become comfortable, breathing deeply and regularly. Then you should concentrate all your attention on one part of your body at a time, starting with your foot and working up towards your head. You concentrate on the whole of your foot for instance – toes, sole, instep and heel – let it go completely limp, and let it stay limp. Do the same with the other foot, then work on your legs, your stomach, chest, and so on. When you have proceeded round all the limbs of your body, including…
Chapter continues …
© Mantex/Clifton Press 1993
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