Exam Stress Sorted

In days gone by if you didn’t pay attention in class you were whacked or rapped on the knuckles and any signs of anxiety were instantly quashed. Immediate silence, concentration and regurgitation of facts were expected and woe betide you if you got it wrong.

Are you chewing fingernails, taking long breaks in between study periods, eating more, exercising less, cramming more, and sleeping less? Sounds like exam stress to me. Instant amnesia, or even worse, a fit of catatonia on the day, can determine whether you pass or fail, make or break, get that new job or stay stuck where you are. Normal life stress is compounded by exam stress and when unusual things happen just before exams, performance can plummet, partners feel spurned and parents become despondent at their petulant offspring.

So what to do?

TAKE CARE OF YOUR BRAIN

While knowing your subject matter well goes a long way towards lessening exam stress, there are some basics that set up a framework for good study methods. Good health is the primary prerequisite. Your brain needs more sleep, more oxygen and more micronutrients to perform at an optimal level, while a healthy mind needs to be supported by a healthy body. An exercise plan, even if it is just a brisk daily walk as opposed to a workout, will induce a healthy appetite. Brain foods include salmon, yellowtail, sole, flaxseed oil, sesame seeds, sunflower seeds, eggs, chicken and bowls full of raw fresh salad vegetables. These foods contain the B-vitamins, omega-3 fatty acids, amino acids and minerals vital to good mental performance. Sprouts, barley-green and alfalfa contain antioxidants, folic acid and B vitamins essential to good brain function.

TAKE CARE OF YOUR BODY

To get the most value out of yourself you need to eat more protein, found in meat, eggs, cheese, nuts, and beans. Decrease the amounts of simple carbohydrates such as sugar, corn syrup, honey, candy, white bread, white flour, white rice, potatoes without the skin, and white pasta. Eat more complex carbohydrates, such as fruits (oranges, tangerines, pears, grapefruit, apples and kiwi, but not grapes, dates or bananas) and vegetables. Eliminate caffeine and nicotine, and decrease artificial colourants (especially red and yellow) and food additives (nitrites, MSG, aspartame, etc.).

Vigorous exercise can burn off tension and counterbalance passive study activity. Walking through a park or doing simple yoga postures are gentle and effective alternatives to working out at the gym. It is important to take short breaks while studying. Focused concentration on the written word may be tiring to the eyes, so a long-distance view through a window or in the garden gives the eyes a rest. Sleep, at least 7 to 8 hours a night, is vital to restore the body and mind and enable optimal functioning the following day. They say that one should not study in the same place as you sleep, but to be honest, some of my best learning times have been under the duvet, leaning back on some cushions. Catnaps in between periods of fierce concentration do wonders for the vitality and drive to continue the arduous task of studying.

TAKE CARE OF YOUR SPACE

Feng shui, which translates literally as ‘wind water’, is an ancient method of divination in which harmony is achieved with the spirits of nature. By determining the alignment of walls, doors, desks, and even beds a diviner achieves a balance among the eight elements of nature: heaven, earth, hills, wind, fire, thunder, rain, and ocean. Harmony is very important for the study process and creates calmness both within and without. So tidy your workspace, get rid of junk, reposition your desk if necessary, play calming music, or brighten the view. Create a connection with the elements of nature that soothe and comfort you: a view over water or nature scene, or a fish tank in your home for instance. Create a place where you can switch off from distractions and the rest of the world, and then focus on the task at hand.

TAKE CARE OF YOUR TIME

Plans need plenty of blank space to allow for the unexpected. Work, meals, sleep, lectures, supervision, shopping, and laundry all use up time, and relaxing and enjoying yourself need to be scheduled too. Saying no to the inessential, and that includes saying no to social events, will free up time to study. Study time is YOUR time; you need to be alone and quiet, so take the phone off the hook. It is possible to study in the anonymity of a coffee bar or café, especially when life at home is hectic, which it can be during renovations, or when children of any age are present! Relaxation, recreation, and rest will help you feel less stressed and you will work more effectively, so don’t feel guilty when you take a few hours off.

Do set a schedule of the work you need to cover and the sections that must be completed. And then stick to it. Mindmaps are an effective way to summarise your work and memorising a mindmap is much easier than memorising 50 pages of text. Proper preparation and sound study methods are the basic building blocks for beating exam anxiety. Added to this foundation, relaxation techniques and meditation methods will help to alleviate symptoms of stress such as headaches, sweating, irregular breathing and heartbeat, poor eating habits and nausea or butterflies in your stomach.

I hope this advice helps, and good luck with your exams!

ED’S NOTE

Supplements, used under the supervision of a qualified health practitioner, help boost cognitive brain power during exams:

Herbs

  • Ginkgo biloba has antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties that may be beneficial in boosting memory. According to homeopath Dr Juanita Ferreira, ‘Specific extracts of Ginkgo biloba tested in clinical trials have demonstrated an improvement in thinking skills, speed of mental processing and short-term memory when used on an ongoing basis.’ To boost the potency of Ginkgo biloba, the Human Cognitive Neuroscience Unit at the University of Northumbria combined specific extracts of ginkgo (GK501) with Panax ginseng (G115). Clinical trials conducted with 35 young participants in 2001 and 2003 demonstrated that this specific ginkgo/ginseng combination resulted in an immediate and measurable improvement in memory.
  • American ginseng has a positive effect on working memory processes according to research from the Brain Sciences Institute at Swinburne University in Australia. ‘Working memory refers to the mental workspace used in learning, reasoning, and comprehension as opposed to remembering events from the past,’ explains Ferreira.
  • Bacopa monnieri has been used for over 2 000 years in Ayurvedic medicine to promote longevity and improve memory and cognitive function. Seven clinical trials¹ in India since the 1960s and two trials² at the Brain Sciences Institute in Australia proved that the specific extract CDRI 08 did indeed improve cognitive functioning in adults. The CDRI 08 extract was found to be safe and demonstrated measurable improvements in memory, recall and concentration in adults. Bacopa monnieri requires a few weeks to take effect.
  • Gotu kola, also known by its scientific name Centella asiatica, has been revered for thousands of years for its ability to speed wound healing, soothe and calm, improve respiratory issues, and protect the heart. But it is also known to improve cognitive function. It is an excellent brain tonic that energises flagging mental activity. Gotu kola also requires a few weeks to take effect.
  • Rhodiola rosea is a Scandinavian herb and a traditional Chinese medicine that improves physical and cognitive ability. In addition to this it is highly effective in reducing symptoms of fatigue and stress – extremely useful during exam time.
  • Rosemary essential oil enhances memory and concentration – simply add a few drops to a vapouriser in your study area. Use a few sprigs of fresh rosemary with a touch of raw honey to make a delicious tea.

Essential fatty acids

  • Omega-3 fatty acids are essential for brain function as they help maintain efficient thought pattern processes, reactions and reflexes. Key omega-3 fatty acids contain eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexanoic acid (DHA). Both are found primarily in oily cold-water fish such as tuna, salmon and mackerel. Vegetarians can elect to use flax seed oil capsules instead of krill or salmon oil capsules.

Vitamins

  • B-vitamins, such as niacin, thiamine and vitamin B12, if deficient, may lead to cognitive impairment. ‘People with cognitive impairment due to these vitamin deficiencies improved when the vitamins were added to their diet,’ says Ferreira. ‘However, preventing – rather than attempting to overcome – cognitive decline is clearly the preferred route when it comes to diet and supplementation.’
  • Vitamin D is well known for its ability to promote healthy bones and teeth, but research has shown that it is also important for cognitive function. This vitamin is synthesised in our skin when we are exposed to sunlight, so be sure to catch some rays between study shifts.

Minerals

  • Zinc has been identified for the crucial role it plays in supporting memory and cognitive stability. By getting enough zinc, you will be ensuring optimal brain function. Red meat and poultry are good sources of zinc, but it is also found in beans, nuts, crab and lobster, whole grains, fortified breakfast cereals and dairy products.

Amino acids

  • Acetyl L-carnitine increases brain energy, thereby enhancing memory and concentration. This amino acid improves mental clarity, focus, mood and processing speed.
  • L-tyrosine, one of the non-essential amino acids found in protein-rich foods such as meat, poultry, seafood and tofu, is a precursor to the neurotransmitters norepinephrine and dopamine. These chemical messengers promote mental alertness. L-tryptophan is key for the release of serotonin, a neurotransmitter with calming and sleep-promoting effects.

References

  1. Singh S. Thesis, K.G. Medical College, Univ of Lucknow. 2001.
  2. Stough C, et al. Phytotherapy Research. 2008;22(12):1629-1634.

Further reading

  1. Constantinidis J. Treatment of Alzheimer’s disease by zinc compounds. Drug Develop Res. 1992;(27):1-14.
  2. Levine J. Controlled trials of inositol in psychiatry. Eur Neuropsychopharmacol . 1997;(7):147-55.
  3. Vernon M, Jeffrey M. Brain Power: A Neurosurgeon’s Complete Program to Maintain and Enhance Brain Fitness Throughout Your Life. New York: Houghton Miffl in, 1989:139.
  4. Benton D, et al. The impact of long-term vitamin supplementation on cognitive function. Psychopharmacology. 1995;(117): 298-305.
  5. Brainplace.com, 2002-2003. The Amen Clinics Inc., A Medical Corporation.
  6. Masaki K. Vitamin E and C supplements for mental function in seniors. Neurology. 2000;(54):1265-1272.
  7. Reported by www.reutershealth.com on 14 October 2002: New Research Suggests Gingko Helps Memory of Dementia Patients.
  8. Van Schoor A, Mill E, et al. Effective Study. Pretoria: University of South Africa, 1995.
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Exam Stress Sorted

Marianne Littlejohn
About The Author
- Registered Professional Midwife, BA Hons (Psych), OHN, Cert. Audiometry, Helping Babies Breathe Instructor, Director Mtwana Birth Centre Marianne is a professional midwife with 25 years’ experience. She loves babies, mothers and fathers and believes that safe gentle births empower women and their babies and pave the way for a gentler and more peaceful future ! Marianne gave birth to her now adult sons at home and attends homebirths and waterbirths. She is also is Director of the Mtwana Birth Centre in Muizenberg.