As a retired academic, I know that for many students this can be one of the most stressful times of the academic year; desperately trying to organise, memorise and synthesis the facts, figures and experiences acquired over one, or more, years of learning. As if this were not enough, very often we add to that significant burden by telling ourselves stories of what will happen if we ‘get it wrong’, telling ourselves ‘we’ll never get the hang of this’, and berating ourselves over things we should have done before (taken better notes, gone to fewer parties, been a better student). These stories are often the source of much of the stress we experience around this time, much more so than the actual studying and exam prep itself - and easy as it is to see that, it is almost impossible to rationalise your way out of doing it. So DON’T TRY! Trying to rationalise our way out of telling ourselves these stories is generally nothing more than a quick path to guilt, and a whole lot more stories.
Mindful exam preparation won’t stop you telling yourself stories, but it will help you recognise when you’re doing it, and help you manage the stories so that you can refocus your attention back to where you want it to be – on your preparations. The best way to approach mindful exam preparation is to try and establish a regular pattern of Mindfulness Meditation; a little everyday can be remarkably effective. Try the 5½ minute mindfulness exercise led by Diana Winston from the UCLA Mindful Awareness Research Centre; starting your day with a brief mindful exercise, or beginning your study time with a brief exercise, can help calm your mind and focus your attention on the task in hand. However, many people find it difficult to get into the habit of regular practice, so what do you do when you find yourself engaged in automatic thoughts and stories of doom and disaster? One option is to recognise that you’re doing it – stop what you’re doing and gently tell yourself that you’re getting lost in stories – you’ve just taken the first step, you’re back in the present moment.
Focus your attention inwards for a moment and bring your awareness to what you are experiencing right now, name what it is you are experiencing, whether it’s a physical sensation, an emotion or a state of mind – bring your attention to what you are feeling (pleasant or unpleasant) and, as best you can, try and sit with that awareness for around a minute (that’s about 7 or 8 breaths). Now, let go of your awareness of what you were feeling and bring the focus of your attention to your breathing itself. Follow each in-breath into your body, and follow each out-breath as you breathe out in turn (perhaps noticing the slight pause between each breath as you do so) – you don’t need to breath in any special way, just follow each breath and try and sit with your breathing for a minute. Finally, allow the focus of your attention to spread from your breathing, and to take in the rest of your body. Bring your awareness to the sensations of contact, of touch, of temperature – becoming aware of all the sensations you experience inside and outside your body. Again, try and sit with this awareness for one minute. At the end of the three minutes gently remind yourself, “This is now” and return the focus of your attention to the preparation work you were involved in. Remember, your mind will almost certainly go off on further stories at some point (that’s what minds do), so repeat as necessary.
Good luck with the exams.