Friday 13 May 2016

Exam Time Again - How to cope with Exam Stress

Exam Time Again

Just as the sun begins to warm our skin exam time looms for thousands of students. Hours are to be spent huddled over books and computers and acres of notes are created. Inevitably some students just seem to work through this process but for others it is a time of stress, torment and crushing self-doubt, all of this bleeding into the life of the family.

I must confess that as a 16 year old and later taking my finals at degree level, I recall vividly vowing never to sit an exam again such was my fear.  On the night of one of my ‘O’ levels I was to be found under my parents bed weeping in sheer panic, the best solution thought to   give me the following morning some little pill from the medicine cabinet.  This of course taught me no real coping strategies and did me no favours.  Exams for most young people are a fact of their educational lives, but with a few strategies I believe they should not cause the fear and panic I myself have experienced as well as witnessed in the young people I work with and know.

One of the most rewarding aspects of being a counsellor/Hypnotherapist has been in the last month or so working with students with anticipated exam stress. They have usually have had moments of sheer panic or been communicated with in a non- productive way causing great lack of confidence. My experience has been of students caught in a system that puts a great deal of expectation of high results, from all angles; teachers, parents (no matter how laid back we may appear they want to please us)and of course themselves. There seems to be a constant highly critical and negative internal dialogue of ‘I must, get a grip, it will be the end of the world’. 

So what do we work on in clinic?  Really it is a process of putting everything into context (creating the bigger picture), turning negative self-talk into something positive and with some personal healthy coping strategies if the panic does begin to bite.

  • ·         Initially we talk about what path the student sees themselves following, their hopes and expectations for the future. Does an A grade really matter to them, or other people? Do they need it to get where they want to go? We talk about the things they love doing, the things they don’t.  Crucially we talk about what is the worst that could happen in reality? Remember Edison failed numerous times before creating the light bulb.

  • ·         Practicalities matter.  A steady revision timetable with times for breaks and rest. The breaks are nourishment for the body and soul.  Crucially we talk about the night before the exam, hopefully getting the whole family on-board and planning a stopping time for revision as well as relaxing and comforting activities that will ensure reasonable nights sleep.

  • ·         Importantly we work on breathing, a skill for life.  Basic meditation techniques are brilliant in helping the body reach a place that is calm and receptive. Just asking the student to find 10 minutes a day to sit in a quiet place and listen with a gentle awareness to the sounds around then is a simple way to start, this can be extended then to bringing gentle awareness to their breathing.  Within moments the whole body begins to relax down.

  • ·         Tina Turner had the right idea when she strutted about the stage in a red dress and high heels if I recall singing ‘simply the best, better than all the rest’.  Well you don’t have to go that far but Ms Turner is a good illustration of positive self- talk. This is also another skill for life; the ability to step back and realise we are not helping ourselves when we hear that inner voice say ‘I can’t do this’. A better strategy is to learn the habit of turning the difficult into something that helps us. One such method in this case is the creation of a little phrase (self-Affirmation) personal to the student that helps to keep them on track and motivated such as ‘I can do this, this is just one more step toward my goal’.  In clinic we often combine this affirmation with a self -soothing technique, the best one I know is to gently create a circular movement with your index finger on either the wrist of your other hand or the palm, whilst keeping your eyes fixed on an object of your choice.

  • ·         Now finally in clinic I do use Hypnosis in this situation.  Crucially and this could be done at home, we look at all the steps to taking the exam, talking about the least fearful to the most, seeing at this point if there is a more positive way of looking at the situation.  Where I differ as a counsellor and Hypnotherapist is that under hypnosis I then work with my client at a process called desensitization, gradually working through the steps and reducing the fear and replacing this with the desired states of the client; usually calm, confidence and problem solving strategies.  Projecting into the future new positive habits and ways of being.

I do hope that in some way this article helps stressed parents or students.  I know that exams, although never a completely joyful experience for the majority of us, can have the ability to stress us all to the point of exhaustion considerably reduced.

Michelle Krethlow Shaw

Saturday 19 March 2016

Don't worry be happy

Don’t Worry Be Happy

 As human beings from time to time we all find ourselves worrying over something.  You maybe the sort of person who wakes up at 5.00am ruminating over  some perceived difficulty you are facing, or just get constantly distracted during the day by some worry that just keeps churning round in your mind. One of the most discussed difficulties with clients in my clinic is rumination, that inability to just let unhelpful thoughts go.

It is often believed that being able to worry is a positive personality trait, that it aids problem solving, that if:  ‘I worry hard enough about something in the future, about which I have no real certainty of the outcome then perhaps…..’  Well exactly you can’t predict the future, that would be a unique trick. How many times has the thing you have been worrying about been completely different. For those of you with teenagers; how many hours have you spent talking through worries at school from a presentation to relationship difficulties, to be yourself on tenterhooks all day only to be brushed aside casually when they return home with a ‘oh that, yeah it was great, no worries’.  Other beliefs claim that worrying is a motivating force, that worrying protects and prepares against negative outcomes: ‘if I worry about something bad happening then at least I will be emotionally prepared when it does’. ‘Being stressed and worrying is who I am, in my job it’s the only way to get things done!’

Constant worry, Rumination and let’s include here self- criticism, keep your body’s threat (fight or flight) system alive and kicking. Welcome then the sympathetic nervous system; telling your body it needs extra adrenaline and cortisol to make your heart work faster, to feed oxygen to your muscles (in case you need to run) shut down your capacity to actually think rationally and calmly (ever frozen in an interview?) as well as restrict your ability to digest food.  Of course I simplify.  There are all levels to the body’s stress response but worry and rumination activate processes within your body that if continued for any length of time can affect not only your mental health and wellbeing (I often work with people who are just generally anxious) but also compromise your immune system leaving you open to a range physical illnesses.

Worry Busting

There are a whole range of approaches to help ease you away from rumination but above all for me it is about learning to be compassionate to oneself. That is to say endeavouring to treat yourself with kindness and understanding.  Being compassionate in fact activates the parasympathetic nervous system (putting the brakes on the threat response); one of the effects being to release the hormones oxytocin (the loved up hormone) and Vasopressin, thus helping to restore the body’s natural balance, lower blood pressure and generally create a feeling of optimism.

·         The first action is to bring into your consciousness the fact that you are worrying, even saying to yourself: ‘oh I am worrying’, then state clearly what you are worrying about. You could break this down by asking; what are my thoughts, emotions and how am I behaving?  

·         The next set of questions to ask yourself are: Is this situation in my control? Is the way I am thinking logical, if I looked at this from another person’s perspective how would it look? Is there evidence to support my thinking this way, are there facts that could help dispute your way of looking at the problem. My favourite question here is: Is worrying about this helpful or unhelpful to my wellbeing at this moment? The answer is usually no!

·         So is there anything I can do now? If yes then take action (act rather than worry) even if it means making a list of things to do tomorrow, and then put the list away. You have done all you can do.  If the answer is no, the source of the worry is beyond my control, then there are any number of ways to work with this.

You can deliberately change your thoughts or your actions to something positive; getting busy round the house, going for a brisk walk, thinking about a place where you remember feeling serene or safe.  You could also help this along by saying to yourself: ‘STOP, CANCEL, CHANGE’ and in your mind imagine, in turn a stop sign, wiping the worry away and then changing to a more positive thought (some people use an elastic band on their wrist to ping when they say stop).

Many of my clients report that writing helps.  Often setting down your worries on paper even if you don’t read them back helps to get them said and rationalised.  Once written down it is your choice what you do then; worries have been written on balloons and let go, put onto computers and deleted, safely burned, ripped up and thrown away.

Worry Time
You can give yourself allotted worry time each day, condensing your worries into a planned slot.  After a time most people come to the realization that it takes a great effort to force yourself to worry.

Mindful Meditation
Learning Mindful Meditation is a longer term solution affecting your overall health and wellbeing. Meditation is a journey of discovery, not only helping you to relax and look at the process of worrying in a new and non- judgmental way  but to gain a deep level of understanding about your own mind and body and your relationship to the world you inhabit.

 In writing this article I have put together thoughts drawn from a range of therapeutic approaches and all are used within my own practice with clients.  As ever I would welcome your thoughts and feedback.

Michelle Krethlow Shaw
Psychotherapist, Counsellor and Hypnotherapist.
March 2016