This Counselling Guide is where you will find helpful information and advice on the key areas of student success and mental health supported by Marianopolis Counsellors.
Anxiety and stress management
Here are some basic, tried-and-true techniques to help calm anxiety and reduce stress:
Understand anxiety and stress
- Know the origin of anxiety. Anxiety and stress have biological purposes in the human body. Once upon a time, anxiety was what kept our hunter-gatherer relatives alert while they searched for food. Even today, worry and anxiety keep us from making mistakes that will compromise our safety.
- Recognize its symptoms. Anxiety and stress have many manifestations:
- Physical: difficulty sleeping, back, shoulder and neck pain, loss of appetite, trembling, headaches, digestive problems, heart problems, high blood pressure, arthritis, weight gain or loss.
- Emotional: impatience, hyperactivity, aggression or passiveness, feelings of depression, worry, despair, guilt.
- Psychological: distraction, difficulty concentrating, memory loss, difficulty at work and at rest.
- Remember that this, too, shall pass. Physiologically, it is impossible to maintain a high level of anxiety for longer than several minutes. Try a self-soothing technique until the anxiety fades away. It sounds simple, but acknowledging that the “fight or flight” response won’t last forever gives it less power when you begin to feel its effects.
Write it out
- Keep a journal. Research has shown that journaling your worries can help you sort through your thoughts and lessen the anxiety you feel about them. Set aside a little time each day for journaling your worries, rather than returning to them constantly throughout the day.
- Throw it out. Write down your worries on a piece of paper and then toss it in the recycling! The physical act of discarding the paper may help you discard the thoughts mentally, too.
- Write a letter to yourself. Pretend that your best friend is experiencing the stress and anxiety you are feeling. What advice and comfort would you give them? From this perspective, you may be able to examine your situation objectively and apply a level of compassion to yourself that you often reserve for others.
Talk to yourself
- Talk to your worry. Personification of a worry allows people to feel as though they have control over it. By giving anxiety a face and a name, the logical brain takes over and begins to place limitations on the stressor. You can create a “worry doll” or character that represents your worry. Next time a worried thought arises, try to teach the doll why they shouldn’t worry.
- Recognize cognitive distortions. Simply put, these are messages our minds tell us that are simply untrue. When we recognize these distortions, we can begin to help them break them down and replace them with truths.
- Think positively. Repeat positive statements to yourself and learn to recognize your strengths and assets. Avoid taking on other people’s problems. Focus on the present rather than regretting the past or worrying too much about the future. Set realistic personal goals and reward yourself when you accomplish them. Don’t get bogged down with perfection, just strive to do your personal best.
Take care of your body
- Sweat it out. Exercise releases endorphins, the feel-good chemicals in our bodies. Exercise that is more intense than your normal physical activity level can actually reduce your body’s physical response to anxiety.
- Stretch. Those who practice yoga not only experience the uplifting benefits of exercise, but also maintain those benefits long afterwards. Even if you are unfamiliar with yoga, the process of slow, methodical stretching combined with various muscle tense-and-release exercises can provide many of the same benefits.
- Spend time outdoors. Exposure to nature and green spaces has a positive cognitive effect on humans, calming the mind and helping the logical brain to take over from the anxious brain.
- Self-soothe. Physical touch releases oxytocin, a feel-good hormone, and reduces the stress hormone cortisol in the bloodstream. You can activate this by using some simple gestures such as giving yourself a hug, holding your own hand, rubbing your ears, etc.
- Disconnect. Studies show that over-exposure to technology and social media is adversely correlated to sleep and stress, especially in young adults. Be mindful of your daily screen-time and balance it with in-person connection.
- Eat well. A stress-free diet is high in fruits and vegetables, proteins and whole grains and low in sugars, sodium and saturated fats. Reduce or eliminate stimulants such as caffeine, alcohol, nicotine.
- Get enough sleep. It’s only during deep, dreamless sleep that the body and mind restore itself. To ensure you get a restful sleep, practice good “sleep hygiene”: try to get to bed at a regular time each day; make sure the bedroom is dark, quiet, and well ventilated; don’t nap in the late afternoon; avoid nicotine, alcohol, caffeine and technology for a few hours before bedtime; find a calming routine to do before bed, such as taking a hot bath or reading a book.
- Focus on your breath. The natural biological response to anxiety is to breathe shallowly and quickly. Focusing on breathing slowly and deeply will mitigate many of the body’s stress responses. Check out this deep-breathing worksheet.
- Practice cognitive defusion. This process separates the reaction you are having from the event. It allows you to think about the stressor separately from your reaction to that stressor. Talk about your feelings of anxiety as though your mind is a separate person. You might say something like “my mind does not want to go to the party, so it is making my heart race.” By disconnecting the two, you can then talk to your mind as though it is a person and re-create your internal dialogue.
- Listen to guided meditation, designed to help you relax by presenting images for your mind’s eye to focus on rather than focusing on the stressor. Alternatively, you can also listen to music, stories or something else uplifting and soothing.
- Try grounding techniques.
Help someone else
- Volunteer. Researchers have long shown that “helper’s high” happens when people help others without any expectation of reward. Whether you are helping out at a local charity, helping a younger sibling do homework or helping your neighbor walk the dog, volunteering is an easy way to alleviate your feelings of stress or anxiety.
- Turn your focus outward. Anxiety would have you believe that you are the only one who has ever experienced worry or stress in a certain situation. In reality, many of your peers are likely experiencing the same feelings of worry. By discussing your anxiety with others, you may discover that you are not alone and that the advice you give others is really meant for yourself.
Exams are stressful and, in fact, they should be, in order for you to rise to the occasion. The trick is to be just stressed enough for optimal performance. Preparing for an exam can be a lot of work, but the following general guidelines will help you:
- Don’t miss classes before an exam as the instructor often reviews the material on which you will be tested. Find out the exam format (i.e. essay, multiple choice, etc.) and the weighting with regard to your final grade. This information will help you determine what and how long to study.
- Survey all the material to be covered: texts, class notes and assignments. If the format is objective, spend more time learning specific details, while essay exams focus more on general concepts and ideas with some specific relevant examples.
- Set specific objectives in each study session; e.g. study chapter 1 of psychology text; answer summary questions vs. study psychology. If possible, leave the night before the exam entirely for review. Past exams may be on reserve in the library, use them.
- Study for short periods, frequently. It is better to study for 50 minutes and take a 10-minute break over a number of days, than to plan for an-all day study marathon.
- Take care of yourself, especially during exams. Eat well, ensure you are getting adequate sleep and try to exercise. The night before the test, go to bed at a reasonable time. You are rehearsing and storing information while you sleep and you will be able to retrieve the information for the test.
- Be certain of your exam time and place and that you have with you everything that you will need: ID card, pen, pencil, calculator, etc.
- Arrive early enough to find and arrange your workspace. Avoid arriving so early you get embroiled in last minute discussions with classmates. Exam anxiety can be contagious!
- Once you are allowed to begin the exam, immediately write down all of the information that you have had to memorize (formulae, definitions, etc.) so as not to forget it.
- Read the entire exam. Familiarize yourself with the breakdown and get a sense of where to start. Begin with the material you know best and can respond to quickly.
- Budget your time according to the value allotted to each question or section. For example, if a question is worth 25% and the exam lasts 1 hour [60 min x 25%=15], then 15 minutes can be devoted to that question. If the short answer or multiple-choice section, in the same exam, is valued 50%, but has 30 questions [60 min x 50%=30 min ÷ 30 questions = 1], you have one minute per question. This technique helps you avoid running out of time with important questions left unanswered. Be sure to leave yourself some review time for the end where possible.
- Think positively. Try to feel good about what you know and use some positive self-talk; e.g. “I am capable and competent” vs. “I can’t do this.”
- Breathe deeply; in through your nostrils and out through your mouth; it will help calm you. Focus on the task at hand and avoid looking around at what your classmates are doing.
- Keep things in perspective. This is not a life and death situation although it may very well feel that way. You have done what you could do to prepare for the exam.
- Hand in your exam and look forward. Avoid second-guessing yourself or performing a post-mortem with friends. No doubt you have other exams looming ahead. Use your time and energy to prepare for them.
Effective note-taking is an essential skill for college and beyond. By developing the ability to actively listen, synthesize and absorb class material, you will get more out of lectures and reduce time spent studying before exams. Here are some helpful tips.
- Come to class prepared. Always complete the assigned readings and review your class notes from the previous session. Take a quick look at the course outline to see what the teacher has planned. Arrive early!
- Avoid distractions. During the lecture, sit close to the teacher so you can hear and see well. Avoid sitting next to friends or looking at your phone.
- Follow the organization of the lecture. Teachers usually begin with a main topic then proceed to sub-topics before moving along to other main topics.
- Be systematic. Use a reliable technique such as the Cornell note-taking system, which involves dividing your page into three areas: notes, cues (reminders) and summary.
- Review and organize your notes as soon as possible after the lecture. If you missed or did not understand something, see your teacher right away.
- No bed, no computer, no phone, no TV, no music, no annoying siblings, parents, talkative friends, no distracting posters, magazines or photos, no clutter or fidget-with-able objects, no food.
- Create the optimal study station for yourself: quiet room with a desk, chair, supplies, your school work and your schedule of for the semester. That’s it. Maybe put up a sign that says “World’s Greatest Student at Work.”
- This is your study headquarters. Studying is all you do here. Regularly using the same space devoted exclusively to studying helps you concentrate.
- Take care of all physiological needs immediately. If you’re hungry, eat. Thirsty? Drink. Postponing these things will only harm your concentration and your body.
- If you have preoccupations that are distracting you and they can be taken care of right away, do it. Otherwise they may drive you nuts and you won’t get any work done. If quick resolution is not possible, make a plan to deal with them later.
Break down your work into manageable steps
- It’s hard to focus on a huge mass of material all at once. Dividing the work to be done into “chewable chunks” makes it easier to digest!
- Reward yourself with a 10-minute break after every 50 minutes of study. Marathon cramming sessions are less effective than studying in focused short bursts.
Read more effectively
Textbooks and coursepacks are an important component of any class. It is crucial to stay on top of your reading throughout the semester and to develop an effective reading technique to get the most out of your course material. Consider using the SQ3R reading technique:
- Survey. Leaf through the assigned section. As an initial overview, skim over the chapter headings and sub-headings and read the summary and the concluding paragraphs.
- Question. Turn headings and subheadings into questions by placing who, what, where, when and how before them. This will arouse your curiosity and therefore increase your motivation to complete the reading.
- Read. Read to answer the questions you constructed in the preceding stage.
- Recite. Look away from the page and recite what you have just read in your own words. If you do not succeed at this, return to the text and re-read the section. Try reciting again.
- Review. Go back to the beginning and review the contents of the section. Think about the questions you have just asked and answered.
To maximize comprehension and retention while reading, you can also jot down questions in the margins and highlight the main points. Circle words you don’t know, look them up in a dictionary then write them in the margins. By getting to know your textbooks, your readings will seem easier and less time-consuming.
Maximize memory and retention
- Cut to the core. Focus on the key points; take down only what is important; examine the main examples closely.
- Repeat, repeat, repeat! No magic here – the more you go over the material, the more you will remember. Reciting it aloud really helps.
- Give it meaning. Find practical applications for the material. Make interesting and fun links/associations to something very familiar to you. Form an opinion about what you are studying. We tend to remember things when we have a feeling about them.
- Arrange information into categories that make sense to you. Random notes can be impossible to remember. Organize your information using headings, subheadings and examples. Research has shown that it is harder to retain information when we have more than seven things in a set. For example, if you have 10 definitions to remember, try to put them in two groups of seven or less and give a title to each group.
- Put ideas in your own words. Familiarity pays off big-time regarding memory.
- Acronyms and rhymes work great. Tell a story with the information.
- Use all your senses. Hear or recite, see or visualize, smell, taste and touch the material as much as possible.
- Don’t forget to devote some time on the material studied in the middle of a semester, because we tend to remember the stuff at the beginning and the end best.
Time management skills are key to success in higher education and in life. Unlike high school, in college you are in charge of most of your time. Learn to use it wisely with these tips:
- Use an agenda or digital planning tool and develop the habit of recording everything: classes, studying and working on assignments, commuting, clubs, volunteering, meals, part-time work, sleep, personal care, exercise, hobbies, watching TV, social media, etc.
- Break down assignments into monthly, weekly and daily tasks.
- Prioritize. Focus on the most important and urgent tasks, leaving the lowest priority and less urgent tasks for last.
- Be realistic. Honestly assess how much time is necessary per task. Don’t skimp and always include generous amounts of time for review.
- Know your routine. Are you a morning person or night owl? Schedule blocks of time in relation to your most productive time of day.
- Pace yourself. Try not to schedule enormous blocks of time all at once. Instead, strive for work periods of approximately 50 minutes followed by a break of 10 minutes.
Check out this helpful article on understanding and overcoming procrastination.