December is the time of year when students tell me about their deadlines and exams looming on the horizon. I’m often asked if I have any tips that help with managing this potentially stressful time. Now I’m not a guru in the area of studying but I have sat a fair few exams in my time (I think the record was 30 in a year!) I’ve also made quite a few mistakes (or learning experiences). If I had my time over again as a university student, these are the things I would tell my younger self.

Plan your revision. By this, I mean work out what you need to know and break it down into manageable chunks and do a little bit each day. The brain can get overwhelmed if it sees the entire amount in one go and so the way past this is to break it up into smaller chunks and build the discipline of doing a little bit each day.
Take breaks. We function best when we have periods of activity interspersed with periods of rest. In fact for optimal performance, it’s helpful to take a break of five minutes every 30 minutes with a longer break every couple of hours. This helps promote mental agility and you will get more done this way
Move. Studying is not a passive activity. It actually takes up a lot of energy and concentration and uses a lot of glucose (used primarily by the brain). If we are under pressure, other hormones are released as part of the fight or flight response These hormones then need to be metabolised by the body to keep our system functioning correctly. Movement helps to do this. I suspect a large proportion of the back and neck pains that I see in healthy students are due to prolonged sitting (8-9 hours is not uncommon) and lack of movement.

Drink plenty of water and eat regular nutritious meals to provide nutrition and hydration to the brain. We need at least 2-3 litres of pure water per day.

A little note about caffeine – caffeine is a stimulant and tends to dehydrate the body (by increasing the heart rate and making us pee out more water). If you are drinking caffeinated drinks intersperse them with water to reduce dehydration. There is also a sweet spot with caffeine where small amounts increase focus where larger amounts can make us feel anxious. Find your sweet spot and stick to it.
Plan your day. I can across this tip yesterday from Peter Bregman’s book “18 Minutes”: He suggests taking 5 minutes in the morning to go over your plan for the day. It may also be helpful to create an “ignore list” of things that you don’t want to get involved with. At the end of the day, take another five minutes to review the day and reflect on what worked and what didn’t work so that you can do things differently tomorrow. To reduce overwhelm during the day, he suggests taking a minute in every hour to pause and reflect on what you have achieved so far today and what lies ahead.

Stay in contact with friends and family. Studying can be a solitary activity and it’s easy to become disconnected from others. I do see many students who worry that they are depressed when in actual fact they have been spending so long revising, with no breaks or time to catch up with friends. Once they become aware of this, and change the pattern, they often feel much better.
Meditate. I bang on about this in many of my blogs because it works. Meditation is a fantastic antidote to the racing mind that so many of us experience. There are various mindfulness courses dotted around Birmingham and also many apps available.

Finally have a lovely Christmas and best of luck in your exams!
The blog is designed for educational purposes only and is not intended to replace professional, personalised advice from your doctor. Please, if you feel ill and are unsure or concerned, seek advice from a qualified health professional which could be your GP or Accident or Emergency if you have a life threatening medical problem. If you unsure, NHS 111 can help you decide.