Exams Looming? How To Reduce The Stress and Perform At Your Best
I constantly seek out the best scientific information available to help my clients with their problems. And at this time of year a big one is Exams!!
With this in mind I decided to re-read one of my favourite books about brain science. It’s called “Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain” by John J. Ratey, MD, Associate Clinical Professor of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School. The book, is a fascinating insight into the transformative effects of exercise on the brain.
Creating the Right Environment for your Brain to Learn
Ratey demonstrates how ‘exercise creates an environment in which the brain is ready, willing and able to learn’.
Physical exercise sparks biological changes in the brain, encouraging brain cells to bind to one another. These connections between cellls are necessary for the brain to learn.
Ratey uses an example from a school in Naperville, Illinois. where an innovative approach to a school fitness program improved test scores, as well as classroom behaviour and the students general health and wellbeing. The PE program was accessible to all students and was based on each student’s physical ability. It was designed to raise the students’ heart rates, and they were graded in terms of effort.
The studies showed that students who did some aerobic exercise, especially before school, for example a mile run in the gym, were achieving dramatic results. They were more prepared to learn, their focus and mood improved, and they were less fidgety and more motivated in class.
Boosting your Brain Energy!
In addition to priming our state of mind, exercise influences learning indirectly, at a cellular level by improving the brains potential to log in and process new information.
When the brain needs to take in new information this demand causes activity between neurons. The more activity there is, the stronger the attraction and it becomes easier for the signal to fire and make connections.
Exercise produces a protein called BDNF (Brain Derived Neurotrophic Factor.) Its role is to stimulate the production of new brain cells and to strengthen existing ones. John Ratey MD describes this as ‘Miracle Gro for the Brain’.
Carl Cotman Neuroscientist supports these findings and suggests that BDNF gives the brain the tools it needs to take in information, to process it, connect it, remember it and put it in context.
We don’t need to be a neuroscientist to realise that this is going to be very helpful in revising, helping us to remember the information needed in our exams.
Feeling stressed and anxious before an exam is normal. Some people are able to use feelings of stress to help them stay focused and motivated. Others find the pressure too much and perform worse than they should in the actual exam.
Stress is a natural response evolved by human beings in order to protect us from danger. When faced with a stressful situation, a hormone is released which causes various physiological changes. Faster heart rate, sweaty plams, shallow breathing, churning stomach!
Equipping us to fight a polar bear but not so helpful when preparing for exams!
According to John Ratey’s research, exercise is an important tool in managing stress. Exercise induces the stress response but it doesn’t flood the body with the stress hormone cortisol.
For most students, in the run up to exams time becomes very precious. It is tempting to spend every minute revising. Adding exercise into your daily routine is a luxury you can’t afford. In fact many schools now advise parents and students to drop extracurricular activities during the exam period.
But in fact taking time out to exercise your body will make the hours you spend studying more effective. Exercise releases stress relieving hormones so that you feel more relaxed and in control when you return to your studies.
Exercise creates the right environment for your brain to learn effectively
Exercise gives your brain a much-needed boost, bulding stronger neural connections which help you to learn and retain information when you go back to the books
And exercise helps you relax so that you sleep better and feel calmer
A 30-minute period of exercise each day will help to keep you confident and focussed. And it will reap rewards for you when those exam results are published!
Banish the January Blues!
The festive season is behind us and it’s ‘Back to Normal’ now. Here we are at the end of January already. For a lot of people a dreary, long month.
It’s easy to become caught up in the narrative that everyone feels the same and it’s just the time of year that’s making you feel low. It’s easy to blame it on the obvious causes like a low bank balance after Christmas. Or the miserable weather and dark evenings.
Why We Feel Down in January
Prof Ed Watkins, Director of the Mood Disorders Centre at Exeter University, throws some light on the way many of us may feel at this time of year.
“Depressed mood is often exacerbated by a perception of a gap between how someone wants things to be and how they actually are. These actual-ideal discrepancies are highlighted at this time of year.”
“Some people can also negatively compare how they are now with what they used to be able to do, or what they hoped they would have achieved by now, and this can lower their mood.”
Our New Year Resolutions may have fallen by the wayside and it’s all just doom and gloom. Our mood dips and our mental health can suffer.
10 Tips to Banish the January Blues
The good news is we can improve our mood and lift our spirits. With a little know how! Small steps in the right direction can make a huge difference to how we feel.
1. Social connections - Interaction with friends and family is essential, especially at times of stress. If you need to ask for help. Ask a friend, family member or health professional. Ask someone!
2. Physical activity - Exercise is a well-recognised way to release positive chemicals in the brain
3. Light - Get as much daylight as possible. Lack of daylight is one of the reasons for the “winter blues”
4. Sleep - Prioritise sleep. The body needs sleep to process emotional issues
5. Relaxation - Reduce stress by taking time to relax. Take short breaks during the day
6. Diet - Eat well - a diet that is good for physical health is also good for mental health
7. Less alcohol - reduce your alcohol intake to within the recommended daily allowance
8. No drugs or smoking
9. Use your strengths - we are all good at something! When we tap into our strengths it gives us confidence and helps us to think positive
10. And finally…. Beware of New Year Resolutions!
Setting goals is important to activate change But setting a goal will only work if you really want to do it.
If you’re setting a goal out of a sense of ‘I should do this’ or because other people want to you to make a change, it probably won’t work. Failure to achieve that goal will bring you down.
What if I can’t shift the January Blues?
Don’t wait until you find yourself struggling or in a crisis situation. You need to make your mental health a priority.
If your issues are complicated or you feel like you can’t pick yourself up, you may need additional support.
Solution Focused Hypnotherapy is one way of accessing additional support.
Solution Focused Hypnotherapy uses practical, modern, and well-researched techniques to help people make significant, positive changes in their lives in a relatively short period of time.
My Solution Focused Hypnotherapy sessions help you find and focus on your own, achievable solutions.
A mix of Clinical Hypnotherapy, Solutions Based Brief Therapy and Psychotherapy to helps you to relax, to let go of your worries and anxieties, and to get back on track.
I now offer online sessions as well. These can be just as effective as seeing me in my practice. Online sessions have the added benefit of being in the comfort of your own home with no need to travel.
Contact me if you would like to find out more about Solution Focused Hypnotherapy and how it might help you.
The End of the Year: A Time to Reflect
It’s almost the end of the year. Christmas is just days away now and life can feel pretty frantic as we try to get organised for the Big Day!
Thankfully, Christmas can also be a time when life slows down a little, giving us an opportunity to relax. And to reflect on the year gone by and on where we are, before getting ready to start planning for the year ahead. What went well this year?
Self-reflection is one of the best things you can do to create a positive mind-set and to connect with yourself.
Socrates said that in order to live a balanced life one must ‘Know thyself’
Keeping it Positive
Modern research demonstrates that people who are open to new experiences and who use regular reflection on their daily experiences are better able to control their emotional responses. I use this research finding in all my Solution Focused therapy sessions. My opening question is “What’s been good about your week?” This question encourages my clients to reflect on their experiences in a positive way. They start to develop self reflection skills so that they notice positive changes and experiences in their daily lives.
Self-reflection also allows us to look back and see where we have come from. It helps us to see how far we have progressed and what we have achieved.
It is important to understand that self-reflection is not the same as negative introspection. We talk about introspection in our sessions as a stress-bucket filler! Instead self-reflection is a positive state of self-awareness. It is an ability to focus on and to draw on our strengths, skills, values and emotions to achieve our goals.
There are many ways to practise self-reflection. Some people choose to meditate. To dedicate some quiet time without interruption to focus on themselves. Others choose to use reflective diaries or journals to record their journey.
Making Self-Reflection Effective
For self-reflection to be effective, it is important to ask the right questions and to give honest answers. This will then lead to self-awareness and an opportunity for personal growth.
I am always delighted to receive messages from clients who contact me to let me know how they are getting on. It is fantastic to hear how they have achieved new goals since they finished their sessions. Sometimes it’s to let me know that they have passed exams or got a new job or put themselves forward for promotion. Many clients have been able to overcome addictions. They come to realise that their addiction no longer controls them. They are just living their life! Sometimes it’s just a message to say that they feel happier or calmer, or that they are sleeping better.
All these messages demonstrate that an effective process of positive self-reflection enabled them to take note of the changes they had made in their lives.
So What’s Been Good About Your Year?
Perhaps this Christmas when all the rushing around is done and before you start to plan or make resolutions for next year, you could ask yourself this question. What’s been good about your year?
Starting a process of effective self-reflection which could lead to positive changes in your life.
Getting the Most from your Brain. It's the Little Things that Matter!
During the October half term break I visited the Natural History Museum with my 4-year old daughter. She wants to become a doctor so, after marvelling at the dinosaurs, we headed to the Human Biology exhibition. It was fascinating and demonstrates how amazing we humans really are!
The section that interested me the most was The Human Brain. Recent advances in neuroscience are truly phenomenal and I’d like to share with you how my work as a Solution Focused Hypnotherapist is informed by these advances and our ever-increasing understanding of how the brain works.
How Our Brains Develop
Our brains are not completely formed when we are born. The brain develops based on what we experience in our lives. So, the brain is created not just from our genetic makeup, but from our environment too. Our biology and our life experience work together to create our intelligence, our
emotions, and our outlook on life.
Our experiences physically mould our brain. This means that we can learn and achieve more, and experience greater success and happiness through our own efforts. You just need to understand this to be able to achieve more (Rattan, Good, & Dweck, 2012; Shively & Ryan, 2012).
The brain is the most complex organ in the human body and there is lots for us still to learn about it. The brain produces our every thought, action, memory, feeling and experience - billions of pieces of data. Thankfully, part of the brain is the Reticular Activating System (RAS), a bundle of nerves at our brainstem filters all the sensory information that we receive. The RAS makes decisions about what it’s important to keep and what can be discarded.
RAS - The Brain's Decision Maker!
The RAS bases its decisions on the things that we focus on most
For example, you buy a new car that is yellow. All of a sudden you see lots of other yellow cars on the roads! It’s not that yellow cars have suddenly become very popular since you got your yellow car! It’s just that you didn’t notice them before. Now that you have a yellow car, yellow cars become relevant to you, and your RAS sends the visual information on yellow cars to your conscious mind.
This means that we can use our RAS to notice more of what we want and less of what we don’t want.
We get what we expect! If we focus on our problems:
This is what your RAS will focus on. Your RAS will find ways to reinforce these thoughts and to prove to you that they are true.
If on the other hand, you want to feel less anxious, be more confident, lose weight, or meet that special someone, your brain needs some details.
Positive thinking is not enough. Set yourself a clear goal, and flesh it out with specific details to direct your RAS towards that goal. Then your brain will be on your side, finding ways to reinforce that positive message.
How to Influence Your Reticular Activating System
Your Reticular Activating System cannot distinguish between real events and imagined events.
It will believe whatever message you present to it.
Solution Focused Hypnotherapy focuses on the solution to a client’s problem, not the problem itself. It encourages the client to create goals, to identify their strengths and to focus on a solution. We are all capable of change, no matter what obstacles we face.
Hypnotherapy is a highly effective way to encourage your brain’s RAS to move you towards your goals. Hypnosis can empower you to bring about the positive changes and positive outcomes that you desire.
As you can see, I incorporate the recent findings of brain research into my work as a Solution Focused Hypnotherapist so that my clients are able to make effective change in their lives. The research is complex, so the therapy is tailored for each client, to make it easy to follow and manageable for each individual.
If you are working towards a new challenge or hoping to achieve a specific goal, contact me on 07850 995869 for an initial consultation to find out more about how I could help you.
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