Success Without Stress
1. Avoid nutritional stress
Eat healthily and stay well hydrated. Snack healthily to maintain blood sugar levels so that your brain is able to absorb information. Avoid caffeine after 2pm so that you can optimise sleep quality.
2. Take regular breaks
Our ability to concentrate runs is cycles of roughly 90mins. After this time the working memory in the prefrontal cortex shuts down and we stop retaining info. Even a 5-10 minute can help to ‘unload’ the wm so we come back to the task with renewed focus. Get up and move around, eat a piece of fruit, avoid checking emails and going on the internet – the aim is to give your brain a complete rest.
3. Engage a different part of the brain
Related to the above, give yourself a break by doing something totally different with your brain such as juggling, using a hula hoop or even playing darts. Again, helps to empty the working memory.
4. Get good sleep
Practise good sleep hygiene, wind down before you go to bed by reading or watching something easy. Don’t study in bed and try to have at least 1 hour free from technology (facebook/twitter included) before getting into bed. Learn how to power nap (again covered in my book). Researchers have shown that even a 5-10 minute power nap at some time between 2 and 5pm can significantly enhance cognitive performance.
Pay attention to any ‘unusual’ symptoms that have started to pop up such as headaches, insomnia, IBS, appetite changes, skin problems, tearfulness, anxiety or depression. These could be signs that you are not coping.
Related to above, get some support. Who can you talk to? Make sure you have good support strategies which might range from going to the gym and letting off some steam to talking to a close friend or relative or keeping a journal.
7. Take a deep breath
If you find yourself feeling overwhelmed and anxious, stop whatever you are doing and take a deep breath from your belly. As you exhale, imagine you are blowing out a candle flame and make the exhalation long and slow. This immediately has a calming and stress-relieving effect.
8. Practise ‘the worst possible scenario’
We can become overwhelmed when we don’t allow ourselves to confront the anxieties and fears lurking around in our subconscious. So bring them into your conscious mind by getting a pencil and paper and brainstorming all of the things you are afraid might happen if things don’t go the way you hope. Really use your imagination even if it feels a bit ridiculous. And then ask yourself ‘could I live with this outcome? What could I do if I don’t pass this exam’. Again write out every possible alternative option you can think of and build contingency plans.
9. Manage perfectionism
Recognise your limits and know when you are going over them. If possible, set yourself realistic targets, learn how to ask for help and learn how to say no when the pressure starts to reach unhealthy levels.
10. Positive strokes
Acknowledge when you’ve done something well and give yourself something to look forward to every day – even if it’s something small like taking time to listen to your favourite upbeat piece of music. Stay optimistic even when things look bad - take time out to notice even the small things that have gone well eg getting a seat on a train, a nice cup of tea or a nice text message from someone. Research shows that people who practise this sort of exercise are healthier and more able to cope with stress and adversity.
Dr. Nerina Ramlakhan is a physiologist and leading authority on sleep and stress, she has specialised in maximising individual and organisational performance for more than 15 years. After completing her post doctoral training and research onto effects of lifestyle interventions on the alleviation of mental disorders, she spent 5 years in corporate health screening before studying organisational psychiatry and psychology at Guys Hospital and beginning organisational consultancy, work shop facilitation and coaching. She works at the Capio Nightingale Hospital in London. Dr. Nerina is also an expert for Silent Night. She is the author of Tired but Wired (Souvenir Press Ltd, June 2010).