The LSE Student Councelling Service has put together advice on managing challenging cicumstances and how to create a more postitive mindset in times when you're feeling under pressure.
Studying for you degree itself can be an overwhelming time with many different and sometimes conflicting pressures – reading complex technical or theoretical material, writing assignments for deadlines, working part time, having a busy social life and family demands.
Sometimess these pressures peak near the exam period - with exams themselves explicitly testing your performance under pressure by setting strict time conditions and removing potential resources such as books, peers and revision aids.
Study can also challenge your ideas of who you are, who you think you are or who you want to be, lead you to compare yourself with others, who maybe look like they have everything under control (not always the case by any means).
Any change or transition, even a welcome one can be stressful, and study involves lots of transitions in addition to other life events, such as moving to another country, or another part of the country, meeting new people, and different expectations from teachers. Each academic year brings changes – different topics, lecturers, perhaps new housemates – changes which should not be underestimated.
Ways of managing stress
You probably already have a number of ways of managing stressful situations, so some of what follows will be familiar. Or you may know some of the ways in theory, but haven’t ever put them into practice.
Here are some examples of techniques you can use, but remember, there is a ‘right’ way to manage stress - use a technique that works for you!
Sometimes it is helpful to remove yourself physically or mentally from the situation. This is likely to be a temporary rather than a long term solution. Its success depends on genuinely switching off and as a result feeling refreshed. You could try:
- A warm scented bath
- Guided visualisations - close your eyes and imagine yourself on a remote tropical island, away from it all
- Going for a walk
- Going out with friends
- Going to the cinema, watching TV, or listening to music
A regular escapism activity can restore some balance into your life.
This can work by releasing pent up energy, boosting confidence, increasing levels of ‘feel good’ hormones in your system. Why not try:
- Running, jogging or walking
- Yoga or Martial arts such as tai kwondo, tai chi, judo
- Team sports
- Progressive muscle relaxation techniques. Take a look at this article for a guide on relaxation techniques
Importantly, find something you enjoy doing - perhaps you can persuade someone to join you so you can encourage each other!
Practising self care helps to boost your energy levels as well as self esteem. Look after yourself by:
- Getting enough sleep
- Eating a balanced diet
- Drinking plenty of water
- Monitoring your intake of caffeine, sugary foods, alcohol, nicotine and recreational drugs
- Thinking about using breathing exercises or spending 10 minutes of your day resting quietly
Much pressure is caused by feeling you have too many demands and too little time – a classic stress equation. How to reduce the demands or increase the time?
- Prioritise ruthlessly. Cut out anything that is not important but do not cut out all escapism and physical activities and do not cut out sleep. These are important!
- At very pressured times like exams or deadlines it may include cutting down on some social activities, housework or shopping for a specific period.
- Make lists of essential tasks but keep the list short and practical so you can tick things off easily. No task on your list should take more than 40 minutes to complete – if it does, break it down into smaller sections that will take less time.
- Don’t expect to concentrate for more than 30 or 40 minutes. For some, and especially if reading a dense text, your concentration span may be 15-20 minutes. Then take a 5 minute break and move around.
In isolation pressures are likely to seem bigger. You are unlikely to be the only one feeling as you do. Find people you can talk to in person, by phone or email. Spending time with other people can be really important as a release.
If you also want to use additional resources, consider what support is available through the School, such as your Academic Mentor, LSE LIFE, Mental Health Advisors, the Student Counselling Service and the Students' Union.
How to challenge negative thinking
We all have thoughts continually going round in our heads. Often, these thoughts are so fleeting that we fail to notice that we are even having them. Many of these thoughts are positive, and therefore helpful to us in our lives. However, some are negative and can have an adverse affect on us.
Our thoughts have a great bearing on how we feel and how we behave. Once we are aware of our thinking patterns, we can work on changing them. First though, we have to learn to identify our negative thinking.
Negative thoughts which might make you behave in a way that is not helpful to your well-being have certain features.
They are usually automatic thoughts that seem to come out of nowhere. Often they can flash through your mind without you being aware of them. They seem reasonable at the time, and you accept them without question. They are the kind of thoughts that, if they were true, would make most people feel quite anxious or unhappy.
Next time you feel you feel particularly stressed or anxious, take time to examine what is going through your mind. Are the thoughts or pictures similar to any of the typical negative thoughts that were described above? It may be quite hard to identify your automatic thoughts at first, but it will get easier with practice. Writing your thoughts in a diary may help you get into the habit of doing this.
To help you change your thinking, use the following guidelines to reach a more positive mindset:
- What is the evidence?
What evidence do I have to support my thoughts? What evidence do I have against them?
- What alternative views are there?
How would someone else view this situation? How would I have viewed this situation if I were not so anxious about eating?
- What is the effect of thinking the way that I do?
Does this way of thinking help me, or hold me back? How?
A basic factor in how we respond to a situation is the way in which we interpret the situation. Our five senses are capable of taking in much more information than our brains are able to compute, so we need to simplify the information streaming in through our eyes and ears before we can use it.
We cut corners and take shortcuts in our thinking to handle the sensory load better. Doing this means that we are not getting a direct readout on the world, so our thoughts and beliefs about the world are vulnerable to error. When we are stressed or feeling low, our thoughts are particularly prone to distortions or errors.
These 'thinking errors' are common – everyone has them to some degree – but they can make us feel worse. The good news is that by changing our automatic thoughts, we can change our feelings and our energy levels, and improve how we handle the setbacks and stresses in our daily lives.
Normally, we each have our ‘favourite’ thinking errors - that is, a few that we tend to use. Review the list below to identify yours:
- All or nothing thinking
All or nothing thinking forms the basis of perfectionism. If your performance falls short of perfect, you see yourself as a total failure: 'I didn’t get top marks in one test – I’m useless.'
- Tunnel vision
Seeing only the negative (or the positive) aspects of a situation.
Expecting that, because something has happened in the past, it always will.
- Jumping to conclusions
You make a negative interpretation even though there are no definite facts that convincingly support your conclusion. For example, assuming that other people are are reacting negatively to you, or you predict that things will turn out badly.
You exaggerate your own problems and imperfections, and automatically imagine the worse case scenario.
- Emotional reasoning
You take your emotions as evidence for the truth - I feel, therefore it must be true - 'I feel anxious, so something bad must be about to happen.'
- Should statements
You try to motivate yourself with shoulds and shouldn’ts - 'I should do this' or 'I must do that'. The emotional consequence is guilt. When you direct ‘should’ statements towards others, you feel anger, frustration and resentment - 'He shouldn’t be so self-centred and thoughtless'.
- Labelling and mislabelling
Instead of describing your effort, you attach a negative label to yourself: 'I’m a failure' instead of 'I made a mistake'.
- Personalisation and blame
Personalisation occurs when you hold yourself personally responsible for an event that is not entirely under your control and can lead to guilt, shame and feelings of inadequacy. The opposite is blaming other people or circumstances for your problems without considering ways that you might be contributing to the problem
- Discounting the positive
You shrink your strengths, resources and good points and reject positive experiences by insisting they don’t count. For e.g., if you do a good job, you tell yourself that it wasn’t good enough, or that anyone could have done as well.
Once you begin to recognize the thinking errors that you tend to make, you can take steps to avoid them. For example, you might check what you do with a friend, or write down your automatic thought and write out arguments against it underneath.
You could try asking yourself the following questions: what can I do to change my situation? Am I overlooking solutions to problems because I think they won’t work?
After you have learned to identify and challenge your automatic negative thoughts, it can be useful to rewrite them in a more positive realistic language on paper.
This can help you become aware of your thought patterns and is also a useful tool to help you change your thinking.
Get a large sheet of paper or notepad and write up the following headings across the top:
- Automatic thought/belief (rate from 1-10)
- Evidence for
- Evidence against
- Re-rate thought/belief (1-10)
- Alternative thought
Example: if you find yourself thinking that you are no good at anything and a failure, rather than continuing with this, you might try to change it to something more balanced and realistic.A different thought would be to say that you are good at many things, and it’s OK not to be perfect at everything.
By changing your thoughts in this way, you can take some pressure off you, and this may paradoxically make it easier for you to do things that were previously causing you stress and anxiety.
Challenging your negative thoughts in this way over a period of time can make a huge difference to your levels of stress and self esteem.
Rather than seeing yourself as a helpless individual with no control over our thoughts, emotions or behaviours, you might find a more balanced approach will allow you to enjoy and value your life more, and change the way you see other people, too.
There are lots of additional resources available to you at LSE to support you.
Support is available through your Academic Mentor, LSE LIFE, Mental Health Advisors, the Student Counselling Service and the Students' Union.
You can also find out about academic support available to you and the full list of services offered by the Student Wellbeing Service.