Here in Australia we’re getting to the pointy end of the academic year, and thousands of our young people are about to go into a different kind of lockdown – the lockdown of exam prep! 2020 has been such a difficult year, especially for those in their final year of high school, like my oldest son. And no where have they had it as tough as we have here in Melbourne, Victoria. So this year more than any other I wanted to share some ideas for helping your loved ones, or yourself, through the exam prep period and of course the exams themselves.
Evenstar 5 Star Wellbeing™ is the approach to holistic health that I have developed and it brings in everything that is essential for you to be as well as you possibly can be: Food, Movement, Sleep, Surroundings and Being. So, let’s look at exam prep with this approach.
Make sure that you keep your caffeine intake to a minimum. A couple of cups of tea or coffee a day is okay but don’t let it become too many more. Perhaps more importantly, enjoy your caffeine in the morning and then swap your usual afternoon caffeinated hot drink for a herbal tea or lemon juice in hot water.
Caffeine has a half life of 12 hours (ie. half of the caffeine that you have consumed remains in your body after 12 hours) which means that it affects your sleep if you are drinking it late in the day. Even if you don’t find caffeine stopping you from falling asleep it does prevent your brain from entering the phases of deep sleep, which is what every cell in your body needs to rest and repair (see this Blog about Sleep for more detailed information)
Drugs and alcohol
It’s a no. Again, if you think having a night cap will help you get to sleep, you may be right. But (and it’s a BIG but!) alcohol also interferes with your brain’s ability to get into deep, slow wave sleep. Drugs are designed to affect the workings of your brain, and your brain is the tool you need to be sharpest whilst studying for and completing exams. Avoid drugs and alcohol at this time (or preferably always!).
Soft drinks (soda | pop)
Soft drinks are also a big ‘no-no’ in general! They either contain heaps of sugar which gives you a temporary energy burst but then drags your blood sugar levels into a major slump of low energy. Or, they are sweetened artificially with substances your body does not know how to process, resulting in build up of toxins that will make you feel lethargic, and if ongoing, unwell.
Soft drinks also contain a lot of sodium which is dehydrating, so they’re really the worst choice of ‘drink’! Did you know that your brain is around 80% water and one of the first effects of dehydration is fatigue and ‘brain fog’.
If I still haven’t convinced you to give up soft drinks (at least temporarily), please avoid the caffeinated ones – colas and so called ‘energy’ drinks are really bad news for interfering with your body’s natural energy production pathways, and have been labeled by the World Health Organisation as a ‘danger to public health’.
What should you eat?
Eating whole foods is the best option for improving brain activity, as well as your wellbeing overall!
Sugar and other high-GI foods are especially bad (white flour, white rice, white pasta, white potatoes, savoury snack foods such as potato crisps). These foods provide a quick hit of energy as blood sugar levels spike but then lead you to feel fatigued when the levels of available energy in the blood stream rapidly decrease again.
The best way to avoid resorting to inappropriate snacks is to be organized and get prepared early. Stock the pantry and the fridge with things that are pre-prepared and easy to grab. It’s also a great idea to actually get rid of things that are unhealthy temptations: if you don’t have them you can’t eat them!
Here are some suggestions, for snack foods that are fantastic for your brain:
Avocado: put a little lemon juice or cider vinegar, olive oil and salt in the hole left by the stone and scoop it out of the skin! Or smash it onto some wholegrain sourdough toast.
Blueberries: berries are the best! Nature’s lollies! Just make sure you buy these organic because they’re very susceptible to chemical residue (frozen organic is fine too!).
Veggie sticks: steamed (or raw) broccoli and celery are both great for focus, cut a bunch of these genius foods up at the start of the day and nibble on them throughout, of course you can add other veggies for colour and variety too – carrots, radishes, capsicum, mushrooms, cucumber, whatever!
Walnuts: they look like brains and they are great for the brain, nuts are always a surprisingly filling snack option because of their high omega-3 fat content, so if you don’t like walnuts just have the nuts you do enjoy on hand (not salted nuts though)
Eggs: the yolks are especially good for brain health, boil some eggs whilst you’re eating brekkie and then you’ve got them to snack on during the day. Only buy free range eggs because a distressed chook is going to produce a distressed egg!
Small oily fish, such as sardines or salmon: have some tins in the pantry and you can just eat them with a fork. If you’ve got more time of course they’re great in a salad too!
Home made protein balls: mix together nut meal (eg. almond meal), coconut oil, cacao powder, cacao nibs, maple syrup, shredded coconut, chopped nuts, seeds (flaxseed is especially good for brain health) and possibly some organic dried fruit like dates. Roll the mixture into balls and store in your refrigerator. You can also roll them in more shredded coconut, to make them look pretty and easier to grab!
Kale chips: if a crunchy savoury snack is your favourite, these will fit the bill and they give you the added benefit of being made from one of nature’s super foods, leafy greens, which are again great for your brain. Shred curly kale off the stalks into small pieces and toss them with olive oil and sea salt in a bowl. You could also add turmeric and black pepper, for a bigger flavour and anti-inflammatory hit. Toast them in a hot oven for about 10 minutes until they are crispy and starting to turn brown.
Dark chocolate: okay so I saved the best for last! Not all chocolate is created equal though, so make sure you buy at least 70% cacao stuff and brands like Pana and Loving Earth have delicious options that don’t contain cane sugar
No matter how much study you have to get through make sure you move your body every day.
A brisk walk is perfect for getting the blood flowing back to your brain, even if you just walk around the block several times in the day to take a break. Make sure you stand up from your desk very regularly – set a notification on your phone. Ideally invest in a sit-stand desk top so that you can study on your feet as well as your backside!
Yoga is also a highly recommended form of movement when you’re anxious and uptight. Yoga means ‘yoke’ and is a way of connecting the mind and the body. Working through a series of yoga poses and putting your body under ‘stress’, trains your mind that it can manage stress too. Check out this yoga video. The YouTube channel Yoga with Adriene has hundreds of free yoga videos for every stage of yogi and for every emotion you could ever experience! Highly recommended!
If neither of those options appeal to you then find a form of movement that you enjoy and do that. The most important thing is to move – even if it’s wrestling with your dog! Or your brother!
Sleep is the tool that you always have available to you to improve the performance of your brain. You must prioritise sleep at this time. Again, no matter how much study you have to do, you’re never going to do it as effectively as you could if you are well rested. Sleep, food and movement all impact on each other as well, so you can’t do one badly and expect that the other two will make up for it, they will inevitably suffer as well. If you’re tired you’re more likely to make poor food choices and not to prioritse exercise, etc, etc.
It can be hard to sleep with your brain going at a million miles, so:
use your breath. Simply by mindfully slowing down your breath and taking full, deep inhalations and exhalations you will activate your parasympathetic nervous system (rest, repair, digest). This is a great tip for in the exam as well!
Get off screens at least an hour before you need to fall asleep. Read a book, listen to music or meditate to wind down
Don’t do high intensity exercise late at night
Have a hot bath or shower before bed as it cools your core body temperature down, making it easier to sleep
Have all devices on aeroplane mode and turn the wi-fi off at night
Can you go outside to study – into your garden, or a nearby park? Breathing fresh air and being near to plants will be beneficial. If you can spend at least some of the time on the ground that will help to counteract the postural impacts of sitting in a chair as well as giving you access to the balancing negative ions of the earth. When you’re indoors surrounded by electronics and indoor pollution you’re bombarded by positive ions constantly.
Doing at least some of your movement outdoors is a great idea – walk or yoga, ride a bike, go for a swim.
If you can’t easily go outside, then bring the great outdoors inside – have some indoor plants in your study space, use salt lamps to help with ionization balance and open doors and windows.
Essential oils have benefits for and effects on the physical, mental and emotional state. The DoTerra blend InTune was specifically created to improve focus. InTune contains Frankincense, Hawaiian Sandalwood, and Lime essential oils to assist with clarity and focus, as well as Patchouli, Ylang Ylang, and Roman Chamomile to help calm and soothe.
InTune comes in a ready to use roll-on applicator making it super easy to have with you at all times – in your pocket, school bag, or briefcase. Apply it to the back of your neck (just under the hairline where it is as close as you can get to your brain stem) or to the neuro-lymphatic points on your temples or wrists to give you that instant boost that you need to focus more and stress less!!
My other recommendations would be:
Rosemary – the oil of knowledge & transition Physical | Mental action: knowledge and intellectual development, deep thinking, mental clarity, antibacterial, anti-inflammatory, analgesic, antidepressant Emotional | Spiritual action: clarity, enlightenment, mental openness
Lemon – the oil of focus Physical | Mental action: aids concentration and clarity, overcoming mental fatigue, restores energy, cooling, anti-acidic, liver and digestive tonic Emotional | Spiritual action: drive to achieve goals, joy, self-confidence
Lime – the oil of zest for life Physical | Mental action: antiseptic, antibacterial, antiviral, restorative, tonic Emotional | Spiritual action: uplifting, calming, revitalizing, increases courage, determination and gratitude
If you don’t already have a meditation practice, now is the time! Meditation is fantastic for focus and problem solving because it improves the connections between the two hemispheres of the brain – allowing for creativity and analytical thought to occur simultaneously – just what you want when answering exam questions.
Remember that meditation is not about emptying your mind, it is about bringing a distracted mind back to a focus, again, and again, and again. As with Movement my recommendation is to find a form of meditation that resonates with you and do that one!
There are so many meditation apps and YouTube videos around to help you! Try this meditation. My favourite meditation app is Insight Timer, with thousands of meditations all available for free, including beginner programs.
Energy healing works on the physical, mental/ emotional and spiritual aspects of you and is a wonderful stress management tool. The most common benefits that people experience are feeling a greater level of calm and focus, as well as improved sleep! Feel free to book a session with me to find out how well it works for you and improves your results!
Another area where I urge you to discover what works for you and do that, regularly is relaxation! Again, no matter how much study you have to do, you need to take breaks. You ‘can’t pour from an empty vessel’ – it’s imperative to take time to refill your energy by switching off your brain for a while.
Incorporate relaxation breaks into your study timetable. Do something that lets you express yourself – laugh, cry, hit a ball – or just lie on the grass and watch the clouds. For lots more ideas check out my Blog How to Relax.
Arwen Bardsley is a wellbeing practitioner who delves into the broader and deeper levels of health and wellbeing and is the founder of Evenstar Wellbeing. She explores how science and nature are always at work in alternative health and wellbeing. Arwen specialises in looking at underlying causes (including metaphysical anatomy and epigenetics), preventative health and energetic balance on all levels.
With a Bachelor of Arts in Psychology from the University of Melbourne and Reiki Master qualifications, Arwen focuses on helping people to improve their health with restorative energy balance.