Tackling Stress Mentally

Stress is contant mental strain, as well as a physical one. Being in a constant state of anxiety affects your thinking and stops you from concentrating properly.

You can help your mind to overcome stress by:

  • Learning to focus your mind fully on your work.

  • Developing positive thinking styles.

  • Visualising success.

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    Focussing your mind

    When you're under stress, it's hard to concentrate. You're likely to get distracted by worrying thoughts which pop into your head and distract you - thoughts like "I'll never learn all this", and "Won't it be awful if I fail?" All of which can be terribly distracting. One of the best ways of dealing with these thoughts is by keeping yourself so busy that they don't have time to arrive. And that means revising in a sensible and intelligent way.

    The absolutely worst way of revising is the "staring-at-your-notes-and-trying-to-burn-them-into-your-brain" method - for lots of reasons, but in this context because it leaves your mind far too free for those distracting thoughts to pop up. It's much better to revise actively - summarising your notes, converting the information into flow-charts and diagrams, engaging in revision quizzes with your friends, and so on. By doing that, your mind will be too busy for these thoughts to come up. There are good mental reasons for doing this too - it helps you to learn better - but they're for the Revision Page.

    If you have ever tried yoga or meditation, you'll know that it's possible to confine your awareness to a much more narrow focus then you normally use. Use the same exercises to screen out awareness of everything but the problem that you are working on. Although it can sometimes be tiring, really deep concentration, with all of the distractions screened out, can also be tremendously refreshing.

    To achieve that, though, you actually need to be interested in your work. It's hard to concentrate fully on something that you find boring. But nothing really needs to be boring - not if you explore all of its implications. Try discussing the topic with other people - friends, parents, teachers - to find out why it matters. If you listen to what they say with an open mind, you'll probably get some unusual insights, which will help you to focus on your revision with more interest. Of course, it does need an open mind - if you've already decided that the topic is simply dull, then nobody will be able to change your mind for you.

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    Developing positive thinking styles

    The important question in mental stress management is this: "who is in control of your learning?". Human beings hate being unable to control things - it's something which we find deeply stressful. So if you see learning as something which just happens - which you can't really control - then that will automatically will be adding to your stress.

    But if you see yourself as being in control - which, let's face it, you are really - then you need to live up to that. Which means that you need to take active steps to make sure that you are learning effectively, in a contructive way. Try eliminating the words "I can't help it" from your vocabulary, as see what happens. Each time you want to say that, stop yourself short, and look for ways that you might be able to do something about it. You'll be amazed how much control you can take over your own learning!

    Gloomy thoughts don't help your stress levels, either. The more you concentrate on how bad things are, the worse they will seem, and the more your stress levels will grow. Try the Pollyanna technique: each time something bad happens, deliberately look for a positive benefit or side-effect which might be a result. Looking on the bright side like this might seem childish when you first begin to do it, but it has a very definite effect.

    Take a very careful look at your habitual attribution patterns. Attributions are the reasons that we give for why things happen, and you need to look at what sort of reasons, or explanations, you usually use. People who are depressed have very typical attributional patterns: in everyday conversation, they tend to give reasons which are global (affecting lots of things and not just the one thing they are talking about at the time); stable (likely to continue in the future); external (deriving from outside forces and not their own efforts); and uncontrollable (what it says). All of which adds up to a "victim mentality", and a sense of helplessness.

    Positive thinking, on the other hand, means adopting more constructive attributional patterns which give you more chance to sort things out. Try making specific, unstable, internal and controllable attributions instead. Specific attributions are reasons which don't necessarily apply in other situations; unstable ones might never happen again; internal reasons needn't have happened if you learned better ways of doing things; controllable reasons could be prevented. All of which adds up to a much more positive way of seeing the world - and one which involves a lot less stress!

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    Visualising success

    Sport psychologists have known for a long time that visualising success can make an enormous difference to sporting performance in competitions. Successful athletes and other competitors sometimes spend almost as much time practising mentally as they do physically - and an important part of that mental practice is envisaging yourself doing things exactly right.

    Ironically, though, for exams we do the opposite! People spend much more time visualising failure than they do success: they feel that they don't know enough, they imagine going into the exam room and not knowing any of the answers; they talk about how little they know to their friends. All of which is terribly destructive.

    What you need to do is to build up your confidence and minimise stress. And you do that by being positive about what you do know, not negative about what you don't! After each revision session, cultivate a sense of achievement - saying to yourself: "well, at least I know that bit". If you've revised sensibly, it will be true. And if you've organised your time intelligently, you'll get through the amount that you have to cover. But whatever you do, don't destroy your confidence by thinking - or talking - about the gaps in your knowledge and the possibility of failure.


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