Coping with stress when studying for your AAT qualifications

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As a former AAT tutor turned life coach, Lisa Phillips wants you to know that it’s normal to feel stressed about studying and assessments.

Stress can have a big impact on your mental health, and we tend to experience more of it around assessment time. The Mental Health Foundation defines stress as, “the degree to which you feel overwhelmed or unable to cope as a result of pressures that are unmanageable.”

But when it comes to studying, there are ways to manage it, said Phillips, who runs Amazing Coaching in Australia. “Stress doesn’t mean that you’re not good at [things],” she said.

“Everyone needs to learn to manage that stress and to react differently to it… how to soothe yourself if you’re stressed – like telling yourself ‘it’s going to be ok, it’s no big deal, I know I don’t feel like I’m getting it now but tomorrow it will be fine’,” she continued.

“Most people don’t know how to self-soothe, so they can end up in a panic.”

The art of stress management

Phillips recommends several tips to conquer the art of stress management.

First of all, you need to check your mindset and learn to think positively, she said.

“Most [students] are focused on the fear of failure rather than boosting themselves up that they’re going to pass. You can either build yourself up to be successful or you can beat yourself up to fail, and I saw a lot of students who were more focused on the fear of failing than on the opportunity to pass.”

Focus on your strengths

Another attitude to avoid is comparing yourself with others.

“Particularly with AAT, there’s lots of different modules and you might be better at one module than you are at another. Focus on your strengths. Everyone is going to be at different levels,” Phillips advised.

If you are studying for AAT while working, then you have to make your own timetable for revision, she added.

Some people are morning people, some people are evening people. If you find yourself much better in the morning, then get up an hour earlier because your brain is going to be fresher… Find a timetable that works for your body.”

Celebrate your own achievements

Rewarding yourself is also important, she said. “Give yourself lots of praise. We’re our own worst enemies. If you do something and you learn something, praise yourself for doing it. Say to yourself ‘well done, that was really good’.”

And be wise about when to take breaks. “If you’re really exhausted then there’s not much point in revising; your brain won’t take it in. I call that struggling upstream,” said Phillips.

“You’re better off saying ‘I’ll leave this and commit to another time to do it’, and do it when you’re more relaxed and then your brain will take in more information,” she suggested.

Clear your mind before you study

Michele Caron, from My Life Coach in Canada, recommends minimising the things on your mind before you begin to study.

“If you want to endeavour to study you want to have as much of a clean slate as possible. And your working mind can be thought of as the RAM (Random Access Memory) of a computer,” she said. “We all know what it’s like if the computer is trying to do too many things at once.”

If you’re thinking about making dinner, the laundry, studying and what you have to do for tomorrow, then “you’re not going to be able to absorb new information,” she said.

“It’s really great to separate things out and make lists, and make space so that you’re not trying to do two or three things at once,” she said.

“At a time like this you should get really good at downloading things out of your brain, making lists, even if you think it’s something simple, like I need to buy bread tomorrow, put that on your list – everything that you want to download out of your brain and make space for yourself.”

Delegating tasks to other family members can also help, suggested Caron.

Create a ‘worry analysis’

“Part of the stress of the whole situation can be the extra thoughts about ‘do I have enough time or am I studying enough or am I going to pass’?” she said.

To help manage those thoughts it sometimes helps to create a written “worry analysis”.

“On the left-hand side write down the things that you’re worried about… then in the next column ask yourself, is this something I totally control or don’t control, or can I influence it?” Caron explained.

“Then in the right-hand column you’re going to put, what is my strategy for this? A lot of times the strategy will sound something like ‘I’m going to do my best but ultimately I don’t really control this so in terms of this particular worry I’m going to let it go’,” she said.

Watch out for the warning signs that you’re overloading, said Caron. If you have lost your enthusiasm and are feeling low on emotional energy then it’s time to “back off and work on inspiring yourself again.”

Make time to refresh and relax

Being strict about down time and relaxation can help, recognising that keeping healthy must be a priority if you want to do well in your exams.

“Every person should have a quick list of five things that they know refresh them. On your list should be something like taking a walk, or petting your cat or dog,” she said.

“It could be phoning your favourite friend, or taking a bath or reading a book or whatever you know can really refresh you,” said Caron. “Everyone should get to know themselves and have a good list of go-to items that they know are refreshing, relaxing and reenergising.”

How to stay healthy

Dr Sally Ann Law, a London-based life coach also emphasised focusing on your health to keep on track with your studies.

“You have to take your health seriously,” she said, adding: “Planning is utterly key. There is no point in having a gigantic to-do list. You have to convert the to-do list into reasonable and realistic day by day goals and then you have to make a good job of sticking to what you have said you will do.”

Key to this is to set strict rules about when you are going to give yourself time off.

“You have to see the time off not as time lost from studying but rather as time gained on an investment in being able to then study much more effectively… you have to see it as gaining energy and concentration.”

To relieve the stress of feeling guilty about spending less time with important people in your life, it helps to communicate clearly about how difficult things are going to be for a certain amount of time, asking for their patience and support, she said.

Getting enough sleep is fundamental

“We know increasingly how important sleep is in terms of stress management. We need time for our brain to recalibrate and be able to cope. Do whatever you can to get a balanced routine that enables you to get the best chance for a good night’s sleep,” she said.

London-based high-end life coach Michael Serwa believes that we don’t need to stress at all, even though “it sounds like a smart-ass thing to say.”

The things that we worry about are either things that we can control or we can’t, he explained. “And when you think about it, if you can control something why would you stress about it, and equally if you cannot control something why would you stress or worry about it?” he said.

“So the mindset shifts, and understanding that stress is a choice… Nobody can make you upset, you can only make yourself upset. Nobody can go inside of your head and pull the triggers,” he said.

Exercise is a stress-buster

“You can only do it yourself. So we use external triggers – people and situations –  to get stressed but ultimately we stress ourselves,” argued Serwa.

Serwa recommends that meditating for just ten minutes every morning – using apps like Headspace –  can make a difference to your daily stress levels.

A second kind of stress-buster is exercise. “Any form of physical activity,” he said. “Some people hate cardio or weight training, but surely there will be one form of activity that you don’t hate, so do that,” Serva added.

“We should all aim for three workouts of some sort every week and it’s not about the length but the intensity of those workouts, so you’re far better off having three short high intensity workouts than three 2 hour long sets of workouts when you’re on the phone half the time,” he said.

“We have time for everything. It’s about prioritizing the things that are really important. If stress is something that someone struggles with then you have to exercise at the very least.”

The science behind good health

The value of exercise in relieving stress is a concept that Matt Thompson, a sports psychologist at the University of Birmingham, wholeheartedly endorses.

“Exercise is fantastic for reducing stress and improving overall mental health and wellbeing! The chemical changes that occur in the brain as a result of exercise can improve our mood very quickly and the self-esteem gained by regularly exercising can have great longer term benefits to our mental health,” he said.

“A hugely important factor which ties in to our mental health and wellbeing is also the sense of community and social integration we gain from exercising and playing sport with others,” said Thompson, who works with Olympians and international athletes.

“The first step is the hardest! So set small goals to get you going. Even exercising for 10 minutes will give you benefits and will get the ball rolling! Also, join an exercise group or sports club to get that social support which can be so helpful!”

The Mental Health Foundation website is full of further information to help you work towards maintaining good mental health , including identifying if you are stressed, how to how to cope with stress, and how to raise awareness about mental health.

For more on managing your mental health during assessment season;

Browse the full range of AAT study support resources here

Nicola Smith has spent a decade reporting for The Sunday Times on both the European Union and South Asia.

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