Exam season is tough. With time pressures, a number of topics to understand and anxiety about passing, positive wellbeing practices can really help you to thrive as a student.
This is certainly something dentist and positive psychologist, Mahrukh Khwaja, wished she had leaned into as a dental student. She confesses that during stints of exams or coursework she would spend hours in the library, forgoing food and trying to make revision engaging.
It’s understandable to fall into some bad habits, but there are strategies you can use to support your psychological wellness. In this blog, Mahrukh will delve into them.
As a chronically troubled sleeper myself, I can appreciate the importance of a good night’s sleep.
It’s something that has really frustrated me throughout the years, especially when I begin worrying about its impact on the next day’s treatments for patients. Introducing good sleep hygiene practices has really transformed the quality and quantity of my sleep.
If we think of our wellbeing as a house, sleep represents the foundation. We need sleep to maintain cognitive function, physical health, creativity and mood.
Yet we often try to stretch our days to maximise our "productivity", and some of us may struggle with insomnia or sleep problems. Sleep hygiene can go a long way in making a difference to our sleep experience.
Sleep can also be a great aid for competitive edge. Since 2005, sleep coaches have become vital members of an athletes entourage, helping cyclists, footballers, basketball players and runners to achieve their best potential.
If we apply the same logic, sleep may help us medical professionals perform procedures better and have more energy to care for our patients.
Here are the top steps to a good night’s sleep:
- Grab a daily dose of daylight – Exposing yourself to plenty of daylight during the first hour of waking can help to tweak your body’s inbuilt clock for sleep (circadian rhythm).
- Let go of worries – This could be done through a stress relief journal. Recording your worries, urgent to-do tasks, feelings, thoughts and experiences into a journal may help you manage your emotions and maintain positive wellbeing.
- Build a night time wind-down routine – This might include meditation, reading or having a shower. Building a routine like this helps our body to switch off and get ready for sleep.
- Dim the lights – Minimise bright lights in the evenings, particularly blue light or LED devices, to ensure your body listens to its melatonin sleep triggers.
- Cool down – Dial down your radiator in your bedroom to a cool 16 to 18 degrees. This helps to lower your body temperature, making it easier to experience deep sleep.
- Create a tech-free zone one hour before bed – We want our brain to switch off, so avoid any devices that might be overstimulating.
- Adopt a consistent sleep schedule – Stick to sleeping and waking up at the same time every morning and evening. This makes it easier to fall asleep quickly at night and wake up feeling rested.
- Create the right ambience and environment – Ensure a dark, quiet bedroom using blackout curtains and earplugs. You may want to add a nice aromatherapy mist (such as lavender) to the mix to encourage you to relax.
- Practice gratitude before nodding off – Every night before sleeping, name three things that happened throughout the day that you are grateful for, big or small.
Nourishing yourself through nutrition
Meal planning and prepping can really help you to prioritise nutrition during exam season. Food is also linked to our mood. The table below provides suggestions of foods you can double down on during the exam period, in order to help your concentration, energy and stress levels.
- Vitamin C is a well-known oxidant that is involved in the regulation of anxiety, stress, depression, fatigue and mood state in humans. It converts tryptophan (an amino acid present in animal proteins in the diet) into serotonin, a hormone responsible for regulating mood. It can be found in oranges, kiwi fruit, tomatoes, sweet potato, broccoli and peppers.
- Vitamin D may play an important role in emotional regulation and warding off depression. In one Norwegian study, researchers reported that participants who received vitamin D supplements saw an improvement in their symptoms (Jorde et al., 2008). It can be found in oily fish, red meat and egg yolks.
- Vitamin B12 plays an important role in synthesising and metabolising serotonin. It can be found in meat, milk, cheese, salmon, cod and eggs.
- Iron levels becoming too low leads to less oxygen getting into our cells, preventing them from functioning properly. This causes symptoms like lethargy, weakness, anxiety and depression. Iron can be found in red meat, lentils and dark leafy vegetables, like kale and spinach.
- Folic acid helps the body to create new cells and supports serotonin regulation. It can be found in green vegetables, oranges and citrus fruits and beans.
- Omega 3 has emerged as being effective for helping mood disorders, ranging from major depression and postpartum depression, to bipolar disorder and schizophrenia (Wani et al., 2015). It can be found in oily fish, such as mackerel and salmon.
- Selenium elevates mood and decreases anxiety by raising neurotransmitter levels. It can be found in brazil nuts, fish, meat and eggs.
- Zinc is involved in synthesising serotonin and dopamine. This can be found in meat, milk, shellfish, bread and cheese.
Zoning your day
When creating a timetable for your revision, block out periods of your day for rest breaks and self-care. This approach can be really helpful in reminding you to prioritise your wellbeing alongside revision.
It’s also worth setting realistic goals for the number of hours you want to dedicate to revision. Remember that a slow and steady approach will help to sustain your routine.
Simply put, mindfulness is our ability to pay attention to the present, without getting lost in the story of our thoughts.
Our mind is a constant chatter of anxious thoughts about the future, or ruminating about the past. Mindfulness allows us to react to our emotions and thoughts with kindness, so we aren’t jerked around by them.
Mindfulness works by allowing us to decentre from stress into a state of presence and awareness (Garland et al., 2015). This encourages us to reframe our life circumstances and reduce the negative emotions we feel.
No matter our age or our past experiences, practising mindfulness may physically change our brain. Neuroscience research shows that mindfulness increases the grey matter in the pre-frontal cortex, resulting in enhanced functioning – for example, problem solving and memory (Gotink et al., 2016).
Mindfulness may also decrease the grey matter of our amygdala, allowing for less reactivity when we are stressed.
Try these short mindfulness activities:
- Mindful break using aromatherapy - Place a couple of aromatherapy drops, such as lavender, onto a tissue and take three deep breaths. Anchor to the scent as you take a deep inhale and exhale. If you notice your mind wander, gently refocus on the aroma.
- Take a mindful walk - Spend five minutes walking outdoors. Slow down and concentrate on the sensation of walking. Hone into as many senses as possible. What can you see? What can you hear? What can you smell? What can you taste? How does it feel to take slow, mindful steps? If you notice your mind wander, gently refocus on the present and your senses.
- Mindful yoga - Combine movement like yoga or pilates with mindfulness by anchoring to your breathing. Spending a lot of time sitting down to study can negatively impact our back and muscles. Think of ways to incorporate movement into your day. If yoga or pilates isn’t your thing, grab a green workout (movement outdoors, soaking up nature).
Spend time daily on restorative self-care activities. This looks different for each person. It could be reading, drawing, yoga, baking or journaling. When we spend so much time studying, it’s important to balance it out with activities that bring us comfort and calm.
Try to integrate these as part of your morning routine and night time wind down period. Being able to switch off and relax will help you to sustain your revision timetable. Try this meditation to explore your self-care ideas further: Self-care Meditation.
Organise treats to look forward to
Studying takes a lot of time and commitment. Having fun things to look forward to along the way can be a great motivator during this period.
Reach out if you’re struggling
If you find that your mental health is being impacted during exam period, it’s important to get help. Speak to your university student councillor or tutor. They can help support you in managing exam stress.
Although exams can feel very important in the moment, down the line they may not seem that way. Remind yourself that exam results do not define you, and that we are all human and can only do our best.
Exams and coursework go hand in hand with university. But you can help to make stressful periods of time more bearable with wellbeing practices that nourish both your physical and psychological wellbeing. Experiment with these different approaches and see what works for you.
And, all the best for your exams!
Wani, A. L., Bhat, S. A., & Ara, A. (2015). Omega-3 fatty acids and the treatment of depression: a review of scientific evidence. Integrative Medicine Research, 4(3), 132–141. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.imr.2015.07.003
Khwaja (2023). Resilience and Well-being for Dental Professionals, Edition 1. Wiley and Sons Ltd, pp. 207-214.
Khwaja (2021). Mind Flossing Toolkit.