Hi there everyone – yet another not-so-fun topic, but I’m hoping this will be helpful for a few of you out there. As I said in my last post (which you can read here), exams suck.
They suck even harder if you’re in a really bad place, and they certainly won’t let you reschedule until you’re feeling better.
The cherry on top of this sundae of awful is this: exams tend to coincide with times in your life when you’ll be more susceptible to mental illness. They come along when you’re a teenager, and everything is overstimulating and terrifying and your brain is literally rebuilding itself every day.
They come along when you’re in university, and you have the added pressure of living in what is essentially a trial-run of adulthood. It is hard to adult. You have to buy bin bags.
So I’m not going to repeat my advice to take it easy on yourself, but seriously, please try. You will look back on this time and be utterly amazed you didn’t lose your sweet mind. I’m convinced that there is something at work in teen minds, similar to in the minds of new mothers, that helps them forget the pain and stress as soon as it’s over. If there wasn’t, no one would ever go to university.
Here are my top 5 tips for studying with anxiety and depression
- Know your symptoms, and work with them. If you have either depression or anxiety, chances are you’ll be experiencing some cognitive symptoms. You might not have noticed, but certainly for me these include: short-term memory loss, confusion, disorientation and difficulty concentrating. These all get much worse if I’m in the middle or on the edge of an anxiety attack. Cognitive issues are really scary, really intense and can make you feel like a dangerous idiot at times, but they’re truly out of your control and – say it with me – they’re temporary. This too shall pass. In the interim, you need to get the people in your life clued up about how best to help you out. For me, I need everyone to know that if they talk while looking away from me, at best I get confused and don’t know what they’re saying, and at worst my social anxiety makes me freak out. I need my line manager to know that I’m struggling with short-term memory loss. I need my boyfriend to know that sometimes my brain glitches and I don’t hear what he’s said. Develop coping mechanisms, plan for your brain to freak out, and don’t be scared of it when it happens. Chances are, you just need a break somewhere quiet. You’re allowed to ask for that.
- Snack like nobody’s watching. I know I said this in the last post about exams, but it bears repeating. Your adrenaline reflex is set off by anxiety, and it’s the fight-or-flight response. To activate it, your body literally shuts off all unnecessary processes, including digestion – the idea is that if your life is in danger, you won’t be eating for a while. This, however, works both ways: if you eat or drink, it signals to your body that there is nothing to be afraid of. It can’t be that bad – you have chocolate! Keep a steady supply of (non-caffeinated, if you can stand it) hot drinks to hand, as the heat will help your animal brain calm down, too. Also, if you’re feeling virtuous, it’s worth remembering that healthy eating helps your body have the energy and resources needed to keep you steady. I’m talking whole grains, veggies, and lean protein. Have a hard-boiled egg and a biscuit.
- Protect your safe spaces. Places have a way of bringing back memories and anxiety in a really intense way, and when you’re studying, you can’t afford to let the places you feel focused and calm be polluted. If you always feel sleepy if you study in your bedroom, go to the library. If your friends always make noise – or, worse, bring drama – in the library, go to a coffee shop. If you find somewhere you can focus, hold on to it, and treat it as a sacred space with sacred acts to get you in the right headspace. You always get a tea from the Starbucks on the way, for example. You always listen to Vivaldi. You always bring a blanket scarf and tuck it over your knees. Remember that for a little while, this is all about you – you can afford to be a little selfish. What you’re doing is hard. There’ll be plenty of time to be sociable when you have the resources again.
- Teach someone. I have found no better way to revise than to get your notes down to a single side of A4, then try to teach them to someone else by expanding all your short-hand and crib-notes into full format. My old technique – which was a little mad, but very effective – was to literally memorise a long list of names that I associated with key facts, just before the exam. Then I would go in, write them down on scrap paper, and promptly forget them, referring back and forth to the scrap if I needed them. If your friends are nice, quiet, respectful people who know your habits and what you’re going through, it’s really nice to have some accountability. The people in your study room can see if you’ve spent twenty minutes in the bathroom playing a game on your phone. They can see if you’ve been out for coffee three times this morning. Make use of their presence, and soak up their energy and knowledge.
- If you need special consideration, take it. One of my big regrets is not taking special consideration in my 2nd year of university. I was depressed and grieving, and though I thought I could do it on my own if anyone had been really paying attention they would have seen how much I was struggling. If you are going through a new diagnosis, a bereavement, a bad break-up… it’s worth asking for special consideration. The worst they can say is no. The best case scenario? You get to take some of the pressure off.
In conclusion: be kind to yourself, and take it slow, for the race is long and in the end it’s only against yourself.
Let me know how you’re getting on.
With love, always,