9 Tips for Study-related Anxiety

How to deal with study-related anxiety?

1. Don't hate yourself for feeling anxious
Our brains are amazing at one particular thing: getting us out of dodge alive. This is why we have survived as a species. Anxiety and stress boil down to fear. Fear is the driving force of knowing when to leg it. The switch in our stressors is very recent as far as evolution is concerned. Evolution hasn't had the time to fine tune the way the brain responds to different stressors. As far as your subconscious mind is concerned, there is little difference between running away from a lion and sitting the Leaving Cert. And it is your subconscious mind, the thing that makes sure you breathe and your heart keeps going without you having to think of it, that activates your adrenals, makes you sweat and gives you a funny feeling in your stomach. So it's not just you, it's everybody - it's just how we are wired. Anxiety is a signalling mechanism to tell you there's danger ahead. When it comes, you need to sooth yourself by remembering that it's not a life-or-death situation and remembering that it's normal to feel this way. 

2. What is the worst that can happen?
On that note, since the Leaving Cert isn't a predator, what is the worst that can happen? You will have to repeat? You will have to go to another college? I am not suggesting that you lower your standards, but just stay in tune with reality: there is no need to catastrophise. The difficulty with opening Leaving Cert results is that we have an inherent expectation because we all looked up how many points we need. Our level of happiness is very much determined by our expectations. If you don't expect anything, you will be happy - but nobody does that. Try to remind yourself that going to X college to do Y course is a preference, rather than a life-or-death situation. It seems that most successful people have experience more "failures", or unmet expectations, than anyone else. If you try enough times and ways, you are pretty much guaranteed to create something valuable.

3. Tune into your drive to succeed
In fact, if you really want to succeed, you could befriend your anxiety. For some people fear of failure can be paralysing and may stop them from even trying. However, you can think of your anxiety as your drive: it is the hunger to succeed and reach your goals. Some people get butterflies in their stomach before public speaking. Legend has it that Bruce Springsteen gets that feeling before going on stage - and to him that signals that he is going to perform amazingly. Madonna gets nervous and prays before going on stage. There is even an argument to say that if you aren't a little bit anxious, perhaps you aren't really pushing yourself? Basically, you can think of your anxiety as a heightened state that comes from your desire to do well and allows you to perform better and be more aware.

4. Start now and don't stop
Sorry, this is the less sexy part of it all: you actually have to do the work. Think of it as trying to get fit. You start in small sessions, but you do it regularly - because starting over is the worst. When you know that you are taking action, you will feel more in control and less anxious.
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What a difference 8 weeks can make
I would like to share a story from my own life here. Some time ago, one of my family wasn't well, and I had to travel to Russia to be there with them. I ended up spending all of March and April over there. Needless to say, it was a stressful time with surgery etc. One of the things I did to help me cope was going for regular walks in a nearby park, more of a forest really. Early March is still deep winter in Russia. There was more snow there than I can describe in this forest. Day after day I went for walks. I noticed that there were a few puddles here and there. Some days there were even streams of melted water: spring was on its way. Other days the puddles would freeze over, but it seemed that the overall amount of snow was diminishing very slowly. I knew from experience that in a few weeks, certainly by early May, there would be a heatwave. But walking through this forest in March I simply couldn't fathom how all this endless snow could melt, the grass emerge and leaves erupt in just 8 weeks. The "deadline" seemed ridiculous given the glacial pace of the progress, no pun intended. Yet I knew it was going to happen: it happened every year until now - the snow melts and summer arrives in all its beauty. Did it happen in the end? It sure did. Leaves, flowers, birds singing - the whole thing. It taught me a few things. One, slow progress is still progress. Two, some days you will take 2 steps back, but so long as you keep going the trend will be in your favour. Three, sometimes it can seem unfathomable, but it doesn't means its impossible. Nature chips away at snow. I suggest you chip away at your studies. Is this too lyrical for you?
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How about a much more clear cut example, once again from my own life. The gym. Leg press. Strategy: one to three reps at maximum intensity (inspired by N.N. Taleb's Antifragility - an incredibly worthwhile read). Because muscles get stronger with exercise, the weight had to go up in order to maintain maximum intensity. So every other session, I would go up a notch in weights. The first time I went near the leg press, I could only do 45 kg. Just under my body weight. A month later, I was in the triple digits. If somebody had told me that I would be able to lift that amount, I would have laughed it off as ridiculous, dangerous and impossible. Turns out it wasn't any of those things. A commitment to slow steady progress will achieve phenomenal results.

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5. Focus on one thing at a time
It can be hugely unsettling to know that you have about 17,000 facts to remember for these exams. Which subject? Where do you start? Try to make a plan. Even if there are lot of things with equal priority, just choose one and do only that thing. It is phenomenal how much you can achieve when you get rid of all distractions. Remind yourself that there is nothing else to do right now and nowhere else to be: just this one task - it is a surprisingly comforting thought.

6. Don't bet your whole sense of self on your exams
This is a tough one. There are a lot of people out there whose self-esteem hinges on achievements, ranks and medals - academic or otherwise. It is an adaptive strategy in the short term. We all want to feel good about ourselves. So if you make a deal with yourself that you will only feel significant and worthwhile if you do really well in exams - you are going to be really committed and motivated. Sounds good? Well, it is a recipe for disaster. Why? Because the low you will experience if things don't go your way is hell. It is asymmetric: the low that comes with not meeting your own expectations is deeper than the high of achieving. The point here isn't that the Leaving Cert isn't important. The point is that your should be your own best friend regardless of your grades. If you offer yourself the kind of support your would offer your best friend when they are going through a tough time, you will actually achieve more. In addition, we think of certain things as successes and failures, but in truth, a lot of the time we only find out years later whether something was a blessing or a curse. The sooner you learn that bouncing back from "failure" repeatedly is the road to success, the sooner you will succeed. Whatever happens, don't take it personally.

7. Write it down
This means writing down your list of stuff to do and journaling. Writing things you need to get done down increases the probability of you getting it done. If you are thinking about something, writing things down makes your thoughts more specific. It also stops you from thinking in a circle, which is so frustrating. In addition, it clears your metaphorical RAM and gives you the opportunity to move onto the next thing - on which you can now focus instead of being distracted by your circular thoughts. It's documented in studies and certainly has been my experience.

8. Relaxation will teach you to stop chasing your tail
We make a lot of assumptions and have beliefs that we are not aware of. Perhaps, you presume the worst of yourself, your teachers or your friends. Perhaps, you are setting inhumanely high expectations of yourself or others. Perhaps, you have been trying to achieve something with only one strategy and haven't even considered other options. Apps such as Calm and Headspace are a good place to start. It is a simple process where you try to focus on something (usually your breath). Any time your mind wanders, you gently bring it back to focusing on your breath. I don't think anybody fully understands why, but somehow it helps to actually rewire your brain. We become more aware of these automatic thoughts and patterns that could be hindering you and having you stuck in a rut. Awareness is huge: once you know it's there, it is generally half the battle in getting rid of it.

9. Exercise - and watch your body language
It is actually quite strange how, as a society, we accept that your body and your mind are separate things. I don't think I will give you any earth-shattering insights by telling you exercise is good for you - and that means your mind too. For what it's worth, in my own personal experience, it made me remarkably more resilient to stress, and I have never gone back to being a couch potato for that reason alone. I do have a few interesting things to tell you though. Your brain signals what to do to your body, we all know that. The thing that is more hidden is that physical actions signal back to your brain. So to simplify, if you assume a "confident" posture - straight back, etc - your brain will buy into the idea that right now you should be confident. If you force a smile for any length of time, even for no reason, you will have a tough time actually feeling sad. It's magic. The idea has been going around for ages, but it was popularised in one of the most watched TED talks by Amy Cuddy. Naturally, when you are confident, you feel better about yourself. When you feel better about yourself, you will be less anxious and get more done. Best of luck!

If all of this seems like it is missing the point, it could be that your anxiety has gone past the point of you being able to work on it alone. It could be time to talk to someone be it family, someone in your school or a professional.

Written by Martina, who achieved 8 A1s in her Leaving Cert
leaving cert notes 625 points
leaving cert notes 625 points

From 2016, we started offering a personalised coaching service for Leaving Cert students that focuses on issues such as motivation, planning study, setting goals, managing stress and achievement. For more details, contact answer@625points.com

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