Clearing 2016: How to beat stress and think clearly to make the right decision for you

Effective decision-making is based on gathering as much information as possible, weighing up all of the pros and cons, regulating emotional responses and putting a plan B into place

Trudi Edginton
Friday 12 August 2016 12:25
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Students should reframe setbacks positively and view them as a good time to pause and reflect on strengths, weaknesses and values
Students should reframe setbacks positively and view them as a good time to pause and reflect on strengths, weaknesses and values

Choosing which university will be best suited for your degree studies and personal development as an undergraduate is not always a straightforward process. Should you be guided by any of the league tables and university rankings? Do you want a university in a large city, close to home, or as far away as possible? Do you even want to study in this country, or are you thinking about following your friends?

Complex cognitive skills are required to process all of the available information in order to make the decision that will define your experience as a student. The city or area will essentially be your home for the next three years, the people you meet will be a major part of your life, and your academic achievements will be instrumental in determining your future life as a graduate.

For some, the decision is made for them based on scholarship opportunities, family tradition, family or work commitments, or financial constraints - particularly if you are a mature student or a carer. For others, this may be the first time they will be moving away from home and making an independent decision that will have a major effect on their lives. Inevitably, there will always be a degree of doubt. At times, the pressure of worrying about the future can lead to high levels of anxiety and stress that can affect key brain regions and connections which can disrupt information and emotional processing and underlie the physiological responses to stress.

Effective decision-making is based on gathering as much information as possible, weighing up all of the pros and cons, regulating emotional responses, and putting a plan B - and maybe even a plan C or D - into place. Managing the uncertainty and coping with any unexpected setbacks is essential to reduce anxiety and stress and to limit the impact of negative emotion and perceptions on your ability to think clearly.

Developing resilience becomes even more relevant if exam results do not go according to plan. Many students find themselves in the position of having to rethink and modify their plans if they do not achieve the grades needed or expected while having to simultaneously cope with strong feelings of despair, disbelief, frustration, or worry. Any or all of these feelings are completely natural responses to disappointment and they need to be processed and responded to with care, compassion, and pragmatism.

Regulating emotion and managing stress is essential for students in this position to reduce the negative impact of mood and anxiety on the cognitive processes required to make swift new decisions under pressure. Research has shown that regular mindfulness practice can reduce stress and increase cortical connections in the brain regions involved in emotion regulation, self-awareness, and psychological flexibility. Being aware of the role of negative thoughts and emotions on bodily sensations when stressed or anxious can help to modify the body’s natural response to threat.

Restructuring negative perceptions and thoughts by exploring alternatives, talking to others, and guiding yourself through the experience kindly - as you would a friend in the same position - is key to interrupting the mind body cycle. Mindful breathing and awareness of bodily sensations can also help to calm physiological responses and free up mental space.

Reframing setbacks positively and viewing them as a good time to pause and reflect on strengths, weaknesses, and values can provide you with an opportunity to carefully reconsider all of the options. Depending upon individual circumstances, viable alternatives to consider could involve retaking exams and deferring university offers, looking for temporary work, making plans to travel, embarking on a completely new career path, or applying for a new course through Clearing.

As a mature student who applied to university through the Clearing process, I can still remember feeling overwhelmed by the time constraints, pressure, and uncertainty. However, Clearing is an excellent opportunity to consider new options, show passion and determination, and think about what you really want or need from a university to help you flourish. Opportunities for lifelong learning and flexible employment prospects at home and abroad can offer a range of exciting choices that do not have to follow traditional and somewhat rigid trajectories.

Ultimately, knowing whether you made the right choice may not be determined by your academic success, university rankings, geography, or a memorable social life, but rather by your ability to manage stress and uncertainty with awareness, flexibility and, resilience. So, here are some top tips for managing stress during Clearing:

  • Allow time to process emotion
  • Talk about feelings with a good listener
  • Focus on present moment awareness with the help of ‘Mindfulness’ interventions
  • Understand the impact of stress on thoughts, feelings, and bodily sensations
  • Restructure negative perceptions and reframe approach to setbacks
  • Focus on flexibility, determination, and self-compassion
  • Sufficient sleep, good nutrition, and exercise
  • Create a healthy work-life balance

Dr Trudi Edginton is a clinical psychologist and senior lecturer in cognitive neuroscience at the University of Westminster

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