How one university fights stress

Exam stress is part of student life, but its effects can devastate. Cherrill Hicks visits Greenwich, where student counsellors offer relaxation therapy to burnt-out students
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While a moderate degree of stress is beneficial, even necessary, for peak performance, excessive anxiety about exams can paralyse students, causing panic attacks, depression and even physical illness.

One university which is doing something about this problem is Greenwich, in south London. A new series of "experiential" group workshops designed by one of its student counsellors, Shohreh Azarkadeh (see below), is aiming to teach burnt-out students relaxation techniques such as meditation and breathing exercises, as well as a deeper understanding of where exam fears come from.

"The workshops go beyond the normal advice on coping with exam anxiety in that they look at personal development," says Suzanna Stein, head of counselling at Greenwich. "In this day and age, it is very rare for a university to put resources into a developmental therapy group."

Even more remarkably, Greenwich - which has nearly 18,000 students on six different sites in south London and Kent - is offering free aromatherapy and hypnotherapy sessions given by qualified practitioners to help its students cope with stress. The service, which has been running for over a year, may sound like a New Age pipe-dream but it has, according to Stein, proved popular and successful.

"Students who have a phobia about exams can be helped a lot by one or two sessions of either hypnotherapy or aromatherapy," she says. "University staff can book sessions too - but they have to pay, which is how the student sessions are subsidised."

But why should today's student need help to cope with something which has always been a part of university life? Rosalind Street-Porter, Head of Student Services at Greenwich, believes that some have less experience of exams than in the past, when most entrants came from grammar or public school and would have formal exams in each subject every year. "Now, most come from comprehensive schools where there is less focus on exams," she says.

"At Greenwich, we also have significant numbers of mature students who haven't taken exams for a number of years. And exam results become incredibly important if you are a mature student and the family is making a financial sacrifice for you." Financial hardship exacerbates anxiety over exams, she believes.

"Nowadays many students have to work part-time to get by, leaving less time to revise, so it is harder to study at the levels they need to."

In addition to the extra-curricular course, Greenwich is also beginning to organise workshops on exam anxiety as part of the curriculum. Doing this, it is hoped, will reach students who would not normally come forward for counselling, and help them to realise that their anxieties are normal.

And to ensure that students who do seek individual help get it quickly, the university counselling service, in addition to its full-time team of six trained counsellors, draws on 12 supervised volunteers from its own MSc course in therapeutic counselling.

"Exam-stressed students can't wait four weeks to see a counsellor," says Stein. "Having these trainees do their placement with us makes the waiting time very short."

The stress caused by exams is inevitable, says Rosalind Street-Porter. "Our job is to help the students see that stress is perfectly normal - and that it does not signify failure. We hope to help them manage and control it, so that it is productive and not destructive."

Tips for reducing exam-room anxiety...

If you can't get started, or freeze, try the following:

Shut your eyes and breathe deeply. What is the colour of your anxiety?

l Every time you exhale, breathe out the colour of your anxiety and see it become paler and weaker

If you are stuck with a question, leave it. Work on your plan for the next one

Give your right (logical, mathematical, analytical) brain a rest and inwardly sing a song. This uses the creative, musical, intuitive left brain

Go to the loo. You can feel much more relaxed just by moving

Take a complete rest for three minutes, daydream, relax. Sit up very straight, breathe deeply into your lungs, begin to work again

Try The Emergency Stop, a relaxation technique: as you begin to feel tense, say loudly to yourself STOP. Clench your teeth and jaw, hold for a count of five, relax for a count of five. Repeat, first with your eyes and forehead, then with your neck and shoulders. Finish with your hands and arms. Go back to work

Avoid perfectionism - allow yourself to do a competent job and just get on with it

Look after yourself

Revision

Anxiety can affect the revision process as well as exam performance itself:

Use yoga or relaxation tapes to reduce tension

Take time off

Do something fun

Plan your time - set realistic limits

Meditate 20 minutes a day

Have a massage, warm bath, or sauna

Go swimming

Visualisation techniques can help you deal with fear

Prepare early for your exam

Ask friends and family to test you

Notice what you do effectively

From `Skills for Learning,' a University of Greenwich students handbook.

Shut your eyes, breathe and forget all your fears

"Focus on your breathing," Shohreh Azarkadeh tells us. "Forget all your fears about the future and your regrets about the past. As you breathe out, let go of what you don't want - and invite all the wonderful things in."

All of which may sound like so much hocus-pocus, but we try it - and it feels surprisingly good. Shohreh is a counsellor at the University of Greenwich. A slight, smiling young woman, she is running "Discovery", a course of four workshops designed to help students cope with exam stress.

Except that in the first session, it becomes clear that the focus is more on self-discovery than on how to revise successfully. "Our anxieties go deeper than worry about exams," says Shohreh. "We are anxious because we want to discover ourselves. When we know where we're going, then we can relax."

There are 11 of us, eight women and three men - and, after introducing ourselves, our first task is to pair up and tell our partner what we hope to get from the course. The room hums with chatter. I tell my partner that I'm here to write an article: she, it turns out, is not a student but a member of staff who works in reception (staff can also attend) and who is finding the stress of work and personal relationships "intolerable".

She says she came to the first such course in January, and found it helpful. "Shohreh has helped me think about what I want out of life," she says.

Next we move on to physical exercise, important for coping with stress, says Shohreh. Reassuringly, she adds, it doesn't have to be the latest aerobics. "Every morning when I wake up I have a ritual to ground myself, to help me get through the day," she says. "Everyone must find a ritual which suits them."

Exercise and meditation are important, she explains, because it is when we are physically relaxed and mentally alert that we are open to new ideas and to solving our problems creatively. Too often, all we do is worry about our difficulties - which gets us nowhere. Too often we meditate on the things we don't want - on failure for example. "If we focus on failure, that is what we will get," she warns.

Standing in a circle, we concentrate on our breathing as we raise our arms up and over our heads and down to our toes; then we shake the stress away with our feet and hands. Next we stroke our bodies, up and down each side: to appreciate them more, says Shohreh. She advises half an hour's walk every day - somewhere green if possible.

Now it's time to listen, and to reflect. University, says Shohreh, is a useful metaphor for life: we are here to learn. But the trouble is we feel we have to know it all, to be perfect - which causes tremendous stress. "If we knew everything, there would be no point in being here," she says.

Toddlers only learn to walk by falling, and getting up again. "Go inside, allow yourself to be a toddler. It's fine to fail and try again." By now, everyone is beginning to relax.

Another major cause of anxiety is our constant need to compete, to compare ourselves with others, when each of us, says Shohreh, is on a path to find our own "unique calling," even though we may not have got there yet. And not knowing where we are going also causes us great anxiety.

Close your eyes, says Shohreh. "Go into the future, to when you have achieved what you want, when you have become the person you wanted to be." After a while, she brings us back to the present. "Don't all your struggles - with work, parents or relationships - make sense?" she asks.

Yet more stress is caused by the desire for "success", yet it is often someone else's version of success and not what we really want.

We also suffer from giving our experiences - especially difficult ones - the wrong labels. "Instead of saying we are facing a challenge or a learning experience we say we are depressed, which does not enable us to deal with it. Think about something difficult you are going through in your life now; breathe, relax and give it another label - and see if that makes it feel better."

Someone suggests that instead of seeing material for revision, for example, as overwhelming - like a huge mountain - it could be seen in small chunks, "like lots of little mountains".

Finally, we embark on a meditative exercise to "anchor" our past achievements so we can use them in the future. Imagine, says Shohreh, we are entering the exam room. Instead of our usual fears - that we will forget, panic, and fail miserably - we imagine we are confident and alert. "We can remember everything, [there is some rueful laughter here]. When we write we are focused: we know what questions to answer and we spend the right amount of time on each one. We are resourceful and grounded."

To believe this can happen, she says, we have to go into the past, to recall when we have used these resources, perhaps in another situation. "You may have been focused when buying a pair of shoes. Step into that memory and anchor it. Then imagine bringing that resource into the new situation."

It is a long meditation, trying to anchor our resources, and afterwards the mood is subdued. One woman says she found it hard to concentrate (the answer, apparently, is practice); another says that remembering peak experiences has made her feel energised.

We finish our two hours with 10 minutes' relaxation, particularly of shoulders and face muscles, and concentrating on our breathing. Shohreh asks us to imagine we are in our favourite spot - maybe a beach somewhere.

By the end, everyone looks relaxed, and some of us are yawning.

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