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Staying healthy during assessment season

How to maintain a healthy mind and body during the busy assessment period.

A healthy mind  

study published in the Lancet Public Health in December 2017, conducted at the University of Cambridge (Galante, J. et al.), found that mindfulness is effective at tackling exam stress. 

616 students took part in the study, and all were receiving support from the counselling service. 309 of those students also took part in an additional mindfulness programme. They measured the students’ stress levels using the CORE-OM measure during the exam period. 

The mindfulness course led to lower distress scores after the course and during the exam term compared with students who only received the usual support. Distress scores for the mindfulness group during exam time fell below their baseline levels (as measured at the start of the study, before exam time), whereas the students who received the standard support became increasingly stressed as the academic year progressed. 

The researchers also looked at other measures, such as self-reported wellbeing. They found that mindfulness training improved wellbeing during the assessment period when compared with the usual support. 

Here are some mindfulness resources you can access: 

Access further resources for mindfulness.  

What else can I do to reduce stress? 

When revising, don't forget to recharge your mind and get outside. 

Leisure and hobbies are also very important for maintaining a healthy mind, so factor some 'me time' into your revision plan and try to distance yourself from thoughts of study during these periods. 

Check out wellbeing events from the Students' Union UCL, including one-to-one peer support sessions and Project Active exercise classes. 

The Mental Health Foundation’s short podcast, 'Stress and Relaxation: Quick-fix breathing exercise', is less than 5 minutes in length and explains a helpful breathing technique to reduce stress.   

Always remember that you are not in this alone. It could be helpful to talk through any worries you are having with a friend, a family member or Care First, which works in partnership with UCL to offer free, short-term, solution-based counselling sessions over the phone and online. 

Read full details about phone and online support from Care First. 

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A healthy body  

It’s important to look after our physical health as well as our mental health, especially at challenging times such as the assessment period.  

Keep moving 

It’s important to remain physically active where possible. Try to make time to visit the gym, play sports or do your usual physical activities.  When time is limited, you could try walking, cycling or running to your destination.  

Exercise can also encourage us to get outdoors, which is good for both the body and the mind. If you need to stay at home, try some home yoga such as Yoga with Adriene on YouTube. These classes are free and range from five-minute stress-busting yoga to hour-long flows.  

Read more about sports at Students' Union UCL, including Project Active taster sessions and the Bloomsbury Fitness gym.  

Sleep  

While it is recommended that you get between seven and nine hours sleep a night, the occasional 'all-nighter' in order to meet a deadline will do you no harm in the long term. However, staying up all night on a regular basis throughout the revision and assessment period can lead to poor concentration, difficulty in problem solving and an inability to retain information. It can also lead to ill health, which in turn can knock your revision timetable off track. 

If getting the recommended seven to nine hours of sleep a night is difficult, try to find time to have one or more 20-minute 'power naps' throughout the day. This will help replenish your lost sleep. 

If getting to sleep is your problem, try stopping work one and a half to two hours before bedtime as this will give you time to unwind. Watching a film, having a chat with a friend or taking a warm bath can also help you unwind.  

If stressful thoughts are keeping you awake, try jotting them down in a notebook and spending 10-15 minutes thinking about what you can do to address these concerns in the future, and then put the notebook away. This can help you relax, as your mind will recognise that there are things you can do about your worries. 

Finally, don’t use your bed as a place to study. If you do, your mind will quickly come to associate bed with wakefulness rather than sleepiness. 

Sleepio is a digital sleep improvement programme to help those who suffer with insomnia, based on cognitive behavioural techniques (CBT). It's completely free and monitors progress over six sessions.

Check out Sleepio's bank of useful articles on sleep, including getting to sleep fast, concentration and fatigue levels, and the "pro-sleep" schedule.

Nutrition 

It can be very tempting to neglect your diet during your revision and assessment period. You may find yourself skipping meals, choosing to eat fast food rather than preparing a meal, or topping up with sugary foods such as fizzy drinks and chocolate as a way of boosting your energy.  

If you recognise any of these tendencies, you might want to look after your diet in some of the following ways: 

  • Allow time in your daily/weekly planning to buy, prepare and eat something nutritious each day. 
  • If you have a freezer, make enough food for two or three days at a time and freeze what you do not eat - this will mean you have something enjoyable to eat on those days when you are too tired to cook from scratch. 
  • If you are revising away from home, prepare some snacks and lunch to bring with you - this doesn’t have to be anything elaborate (a sandwich, salad, fruit and a bag of mixed nuts and seeds can see you through the day and save you time shopping or finding a cafe).  
  • Find somewhere away from your place of work to eat, as it will give you a break and time to enjoy your food. 
  • If you live in shared accommodation, you might want to take it in turns to prepare and cook the evening meal for everyone once or twice a week - this means that you will each get time off from cooking to do something relaxing.

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Support for mental health and wellbeing difficulties 

A moderate degree of stress and nervousness during the revision and assessment period is completely natural, and can even be healthy by motivating you to study hard. 

Every year, the vast majority of UCL students successfully sit their assessments. However, for a small number of students, stress or anxiety can build up to overwhelming levels - if you find yourself in this situation, please seek help from Student Support and Wellbeing (SSW)

Appointments 

The easiest and fastest way to access support is to see an adviser from SSW. Same-day appointments are available every day that UCL is open. 

At your appointment, you'll be able to see one of our Disability, Mental Health and Wellbeing Advisers, who will have an open conversation with you about how to look after yourself through the assessment period and the support available, based entirely on your needs. Appointments can be face-to-face, via video call, or telephone call, depending on your preference.

You can also contact SSW through the askUCL student enquiries system to book a longer appointment in advance. 

Find out more about appointments. 


Dealing with panic during an assessment  

It is not uncommon to feel stressed during your revision and assessment periods. Panic attacks, which are less common, are the body’s response to threatening situations. 

If you have a panic attack, your mind may go blank, your heart may beat faster, your hands may shake and/or your body may break out in a sweat. Don’t worry - as unpleasant as a panic attack can feel, you will not be harmed by it and it will go away of its own accord. However, here are some things you can do to help yourself if you have a panic attack: 

Focus on your body 

Stop what you are doing. Sit upright in your chair and close your eyes. 

Focus on your body sitting in your chair. Bring your attention to the sensation of your feet on the floor, the sensation of your body on your chair and the sensation of your hands resting on your legs or lap. Notice if these sensations are pleasant, unpleasant or neutral. 

Consider your thoughts, feelings and sensations  

As tempting as it may feel, you should neither engage with nor avoid your thoughts or feelings of panic.  

Try to be aware of them, accept them and let them come and go. To do this, you could try to imagine placing each thought, feeling and/or sensation on a cloud and watch the wind take it away and out of sight. 

Focus on your breathing  

Take a deep breath in through your nose and imagine your whole body filling up with air as if it were a balloon. When you cannot breathe in any more air, slowly blow it out through your mouth as if you were blowing through a straw. Do this until all the air is gone out of your body. Repeat this breathing exercise a number of times until you begin to feel calmer. 

If you are prone to panic attacks, it is best to practise this several times prior to starting your revision or sitting your assessments. Doing so makes it easier to repeat should you have a panic attack in the assessment itself.

Try using the guided animation below to help you practice calm and controlled breathing.

YouTube Widget Placeholderhttps://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aNXKjGFUlMs

 

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