Mindful Monkey.

Managing Exam Stress

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Image by kmicican from Pixabay

(You can skip straight to the breathing exercise if you like)

Needless to say, one of the key things in managing exam stress is the actual study you do. So of course, starting early and preparing well is going to be very helpful. Once you’re at or near the actual exam the challenge is more about optimising things as much as you can, with whatever your level of preparation.

Another important area is specific study, revision and exam skills. You will be developing these throughout your time of study, together with your academic confidence generally. At the time of the exam there are a number of recommended strategies around the specifics of dealing with the exam paper: for example, read the exam questions carefully, make sure you understand the question. Make a few rough notes or brainstorm just to get some initial ideas and to get that inner process started. Start with a question you feel the most confident in, to get as many marks in the bag as you can, and get things going. Here are some tips on exam preparation.

Here, let’s focus on what you can to do to manage your emotional state (anxiety, wellbeing): Getting your state right will optimise everything else. Being in a good state has longer term and short term factors. There are things you can do in the time leading up to your exam, and on the day.

General self-care: Looking after yourself, investing in your wellbeing will pay off and be a more sustainable strategy. There’s lots of good advice on improving well being on this blog and elsewhere. Here’s a brief reminder of some of the practicalities for getting the best out of yourself:

Regular exercise: in any shape will help. Little and often, doing something you like doing. There is lots of evidence to suggest a strong positive impact on mood and cognitive functioning.

Eating & Nutrition: This includes the usual advice, eating plenty of vegetables and fruit. Avoid high sugar and highly processed foods, complex carbohydrate (Low GI, sustained release is better). Avoid excessive caffeine. Alcohol in moderation, avoid drugs. Drink plenty of water.

Some kind of meditative activity: this can include things like mindfulness or yoga. Mindfulness is a great way to build resilience and develop emotion management skills as well as enhance cognitive processes. It tends to work cumulatively, rather than as first aid in an anxiety situation.

Sleep hygiene & Routines: sensible use of screen time (avoid excessive use, avoid at bedtime and definitely not in bed!), avoid caffeine in the evenings. Read, listen to music, relaxing sounds, or an audiobook at bedtime.

The night before: Staying up late (or all night!) can sometimes work as a short term solution when you have to hit an assignment deadline (most of us have done this at some point, hopefully got away with it, and vowed not to leave things to the last minute again!). But This is not a sustainable strategy for studying. And for exams it will not be helpful at all, even if you manage to cram lots of knowledge into your head, you probably won’t be in a fit state to deploy that effectively. So be kind to yourself, and get some rest the night before.

Let’s talk about managing anxiety: The days before and during the exam can be challenging for most of us. On a very practical note: Get organised and show up early, get things ready the night before, and get up early so no there’s no need to rush around getting more wound up.

Anxiety is a normal response to stressful situations. In fight or flight mode our adrenalin system kicks in and is there to provide additional resources when there is a perceived danger situation. This works really well where we need to deal with situations of physical threat, but is less effective when we have complex tasks to deal with (studying, thinking, writing assignments, exams, job interviews, first date etc.).

A small amount of adrenalin can be helpful in giving us a bit of alerting energy. However, too much of it will cause a drop in productivity. There is an optimum range for this. So as adrenalin levels go up, initially performance increases, however it soon tapers off and begins to drop as adrenalin increases.

Yerkes and Dodson, Hebbian [CC0] *Derived from the Yerkes–Dodson law)

Here are some tips to manage your state during the period leading up to and especially on the day. With performance anxiety there is usually a cycle: feeling anxious – negative thinking – more anxiety – more negative thinking. Interrupting this at both points (thoughts and feelings) is a good strategy to manage anxiety, stop it spiralling further, and even begin to turn it into a positive cycle (feeling calm – increasing confidence).

Manage unhelpful thought patterns. Watch out for catastrophising thoughts. Remember: thoughts are not facts. Thoughts with a negative bias amplify stressful feelings. Instead, try saying something like: “I’ll do my best, staying calm and focusing on the task will help me to get the best out of myself”. If you think you should have done more, earlier on, then there is not point in beating yourself up. Better to approach this with self compassion: “OK I could have done better, I can learn from this, and improve things in future”.

Learn to use calming strategies. There are a range of good ways to settle anxious feelings, using the breath is a powerful way to calm things. Here is a breathing technique that you could try. This audio file is a breathing exercise which lasts 6 minutes, the link opens in Dropbox where you can directly play the file or download it for offline use. We are very interested in getting feedback so please feel free to let me know how you get on with it.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is img_20200105_165326.jpg
Learning to Breathe

Selye, H. The Stress of Life. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1956 (2nd Revised edition 1978)

Yerkes, R. M. & Dodson, J. D. (1908). The relationship of strength of stimulus to rapidity of habit formation. Journal of Comparative Neurology and Psychology, 18, 459–482.

*The Yerkes–Dodson law suggests that there is a relationship between arousal and performance. originally developed by psychologists Robert M. Yerkes and John Dillingham Dodson in 1908. The law dictates that performance increases with physiological or mental arousal, but only up to a point.
This law states that a relationship between arousal and behavioural task performance exists, such that there is an optimal level of arousal for an optimal performance. Over – or under-arousal reduces task performance.
This graph shows a version of the Yerkes–Dodson law, it leaves out that hyperarousal does not seem to adversely impact simple tasks.


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Part 1

Procrastination is a delay in doing an intended and important task, despite being aware of the negative consequences of not getting it done.

We all procrastinate. Mostly we think of this tendency as an annoyance and just live with it. At other times it can become a hindrance to success, and can cause considerable distress, especially if it becomes chronic.

Remember, you are not alone, and there are things you can do to help yourself. This is the first in a series of blogs on the topic.

The good people at BBC Radio 4 have produced an excellent episode of ‘All in the Mind’ which looks at this issue and makes some interesting points: https://www.bbc.co.uk/sounds/play/m0005t4x

Here are some of the key things I thought were useful:

Don’t rely on negative emotions to to motivate you: feelings like fear, shame, guilt can sometimes provide a kick. We’ve all heard ourselves say something like ‘Oh I work well under pressure’. However, we are not at our most productive when we are in a negative emotional state. Cognitive functioning: our ability to think, focus, reason, remember things is diminished when there is anxiety, or we feel low. Even if this strategy works, there are emotional costs, it doesn’t feel good, is stressful and impacts on wellbeing.

It is better to engage with positive emotions. Here are some ways of doing that.

Make it fun: One way to engage motivation is to find a way for the task to become more enjoyable. Is it possible to make some element of the task more fun? To find something positive in the process of the task itself?

Engage your identity: using language like: I am a runner, I am a learner, a teacher, nurse, geographer, conservationist…

Remind yourself of the bigger picture: why is this important? how does it fit with what’s important to me?

Be kind to yourself: The worst thing you can do is be hard on yourself. Have you noticed that beating yourself up doesn’t really work. Rather than getting the job done, it just makes you feel worse. Better to have compassion and forgiveness for yourself when procrastinating. Ask yourself what would you say to a friend or loved one who was struggling to get going with something. Would you berate them, wag your finger at them? Or would you say something kind, supportive, tell them it’s OK to struggle sometimes, and is there anything you can do to help?

The myth of a different future you: We say things like “next week I’ll be less tired… have more energy… be more focused… clearer headed… I’ll be a better person… the writer’s block will be gone”. As if next week you’ll become this cape wearing superhero. The reality is: I won’t, I’ll still be little old me, pretty much as I am now, with pretty much the same resources and limitations, and this is what I’ve got to work with.

So I will take one small step that fits with the resources I have I’ve got right now, and do something (however small) right now. I can do just one part of the task that I can manage right now, and see how I get on.

I recently came across this quote (from Zig Ziglar) which sums up this last point:
You don’t have to be great to start, but you do have to start to be great.

Screen-time and Your Eyes

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Smartphones are now ubiquitous, and can be a very useful tool for learning and communication. There are however a number of potential issues from a wellbeing perspective, these (and how to minimise problems) will be considered in a few separate blogs. Here I want to focus on eye health.

LED/LCD/AMOLED screens are everywhere, (TV, desktop, laptop, tablet computers, smartphones, and gaming devices). We know that there are potential problems with overuse of these screens. Spending too much time staring at a screen can lead to eye discomfort, eyes feeling tired or strained, dry itchy eyes, difficulty focusing and headaches.

These screens also produce blue light which is associated with additional issues. And with phones, the closer proximity and length of time looking at them adds to the potential problems. There is emerging evidence of damage to retinal cells and increased risk of macular degeneration. It seems that these risks can be significantly increased by looking at your screen in the dark. Many people report using their screen device in bed at night. Of course there are multiple things to consider with this pattern of use, for now just from an eye health perspective, this might of particular concern.

Here are some things you can do to reduce eye problems.

  • Pause now and again and look into the distance or stare out of the window
  • Blink your eyes now and again
  • Stretch your head and neck
  • You should also take frequent short breaks away from the screen.
  • Make sure you’re working in well-lit conditions but without light reflecting off the computer screen.
  • Completely avoid using screens in the dark
  • Use blue light reduction settings if available (but this doesn’t solve all the problems so don’t rely on this as your only measure)
  • Reduce overall screen time








The Mindful Workplace


Mindfulness is commonly associated with spiritual (and particularly Buddhist) traditions, but over the past 40 years these practices have been combined with modern psychological theory and developed into a secular training that has been the subject of extensive scientific research.

Mindfulness is about learning to focus and quiet the mind. This is done through simple guided exercises, attending to the breath, and observing what is happening in the mind and body, moment by moment. A kind of ‘mind gym’ which is about paying attention to what is happening right now with kindness and curiosity[i].

Mindfulness practice helps us to learn how to feel contentment in the present moment and manage our emotions more effectively. This has knock-on effects in lots of ways. Research shows that regular practice can bring about a wide range of benefits in physical and emotional health, and social functioning[ii].

A majority of GPs think that Mindfulness should be made widely available[iii]. The Mental Health Foundation – ‘Be Mindful’ Campaign pointed to extensive research pointing to wide ranging benefits[iv].

In 2015 the Mindfulness All-Party Parliamentary Group (MAPPG) published the ‘Mindful Nation UK’ report[v] .  It recognised mindfulness as a major contributor to the nation’s health and wellbeing: “better health and flourishing, improving mental health, and boosting productivity and creativity”. It went on to recommend mindfulness the key area of public policy: criminal justice, healthcare, education and the workplace[vi]. In 2016 the MAPPG launched a new publication: Building Mindfulness in the Workplace[vii] which looked specifically at the impacts of mindfulness at work[viii].

We spend a good proportion of our lives at work, yet for many people these hours are the least happy. Stress related problems at work account for a huge loss of productivity. Organisations are concerned about the increasing cost of employee stress and mental health problems, which account for 70 million sick days, more than half of the total every year

Success in most organisations relies on the very things that unhappiness and stress erode:  collaboration, creativity, cognitive flexibility and effective decision-making. Clearly the cognitive and emotional resources of the workforce will determine the health, resilience and future performance of our businesses and institutions. So forward thinking organisations see that enhancing employee health and wellbeing are just as important as skills training.

Mindfulness in a work context

A recent roundup of the scientific evidence for the potential benefits to business from mindfulness concludes that it can have an impact on many aspects of workplace functioning, including the 3 key areas: Wellbeing, Relationships and Performance[ix].


A number of studies of workplace mindfulness courses have found positive effects on wellbeing and a reduction in stress and burnout[x]. There is strong evidence of Mindfulness having a positive impact on Anxiety and Depression[xi]. It has also been shown to reduce stress, anger, rumination, and physiological symptoms, while improving positive outlook, empathy, sense of cohesion, self-compassion and overall quality of life[xii].

Working relationships

Positive relationships at work lead to effective collaboration and increased productivity. Research into workplace mindfulness has pointed to improved relationships, collaboration and employee resilience[xiii].

Work Performance

Mindfulness has been shown to have a wide ranging impacts on cognitive functioning, workplace performance, leadership and decision making[xiv].

Introducing mindfulness into your workplace:

We have been delivering mindfulness training to individuals and groups around the country. Here are some of the ways we can help you to bring the benefits of mindfulness into your organisation:

  • A one day course which introduces staff to mindfulness practice
  • A longer mindfulness course which takes place over a number weekly sessions and aims to help participants deepen their practice and bring that into their working life
  • An ongoing program of mindfulness within the organisation
  • Training and developing champions within the organisation that can take mindfulness forward within their organisation




A simple summer treat


Red onion
Vine tomatoes
Greek Kalamata Olives
Feta cheese


Then add
Extra virgin olive oil
Red wine vinegar

Works fine just on its own, or you could have it with bread (or rye bread). The cost will depend on where you get the ingredients from. Remember to slow down when you make this; and then try to slow down to engage with the colours, smell, texture and taste.

Mindfulness & Somatic Based Approaches: An Experiential Workshop

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I will be facilitating a workshop at Leicester University on the 11th and 12th of April 2018.

This workshop is part of the course for the 2015 (Foundation Degree in Drug and Alcohol Counselling and Treatment) Distance Learning students. As there are a few spare spaces we are making it available to other students and graduates of the course (free of charge).

This will be a strongly experiential workshop. The first day will mainly focus on mindfulness practice interspersed with some discussion. The second day will build on this to develop skills in using mindfulness and embodied approaches in counselling (particpants need to attend both days).

Numbers are limited so you will need to book a place. If you would like to attend then please email Shehzad on sam99@le.ac.uk.

Mindfulness: 10 Week Course – Starting in Coalville

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There is growing evidence to suggest that mindfulness can bring about a wide range of improvements in physical, psychological and emotional well-being. Typically these benefits build up over a number of weeks of sustained practice.

The West Leicestershire NHS Clinical Commissioning Group have enabled us to deliver mindfulness courses around Leicestershire during 2016 and 2017. Our next journey into mindfulness will be starting on in September and will take place in Coalville at Marlene Reid Centre. Is this the right time for you to join us?

There will be a taster session on Sunday 14.1.18. This is an opportunity for you to come and find out more about the course before signing up.

The course will then run every Sunday 1:00 to 4:00 pm over a period of 10 weeks. The course is free, if you would like to come along or refer someone else then contact:

Jit Singh
Project Manager
Mindful Mentoring
Phone: 07939 199 549
Email: info@go-getta.org.uk

Venue: Marlene Reid Centre, 85 Belvoir Road, Coalville, LE67 3PH

Dates: Tater Session: 14.1.18 – 1:00 to 3:00 pm

Course Start Date: 21.1.18

A bit more about the course

If you want to learn how to cultivate mindfulness and are willing to do some daily practice between course meetings, then this course is for you. With a small group of people we will be guiding you through a set of mindfulness practices; starting with the breath through to mindfulness of body, thoughts emotions and self-acceptance. You will be given recordings and instructions on how to practice in between the meetings. What you learn on the course can become a resource that you can carry into the rest of your life.

The course is run in partnership with Go-Getta CIC, a social enterprise established in 2012 that works with communities to improve outcomes for young people and vulnerable adults.

This 10 week mindfulness course is combined with additional support to form Mindful Mentoring which aims to help people improve their emotional wellbeing, mental health and social functioning.

We look forward to seeing you there.

A child’s view…


While out with my 9 year old boy, out of the blue he says: if I was president I would give all homeless children in the world somewhere to live, money, and good things they need…

I felt tears well up: how come a child can know this is right, while the grown ups in charge of things have lost sight of it…

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