Mind Over Matter

Exam term dragging you down? Past sufferer JIN warns of the dangers of a negative mindset, and points out an alternative way of breaking the cycle.

Cambridge cognitive therapy depression exam term Exams MBCT meditation mental health mindful mindfulness negativity positivity pressure self harm self-help the tab

“Exam term is depressing” may be the most common phrase you’ll hear in the approaching weeks. Aside from my general petty hatred towards the increasing frequency of describing any sad or dull event as “depressing”, the general sentiment is correct. Exam term sucks but it’s important that caffeine-fuelled revision frenzy does not consume your life, or worse, harm your mental health. I want to raise awareness of techniques that helped me overcome depression and believe can help you alleviate stress and anxiety this term.

Following the large-scale response Tim received from the Mental Health survey, it is clear that many of us have experienced or are currently dealing with mental health issues. Coming to terms with it is obviously just the beginning, but with motivation and support it is possible to recover. The feelings of letting everything get on top of you and being under immense stress are common to every Cantab at some point during their time here. I let these feelings consume me. They combined with underlying unresolved issues to leave me days away from quitting my degree to escape the pressure within the Bubble.

Dark clouds in Cambridge: all too common a phenomenon

Although many of you may or may not be able to relate to my situation, my experience taught me that anyone can suffer from mental health problems. This time last year I was at rock-bottom. I was suffering from clinical depression, failing to adapt to my new medication and lying to friends about the marks and scars on my arm. My coping mechanisms had worsened over the previous months and were largely self-destructive. I felt like the Elizabeth Wurtzel: in her autobiography Prozac Nation, “I don’t want any more of this try, try again stuff. I just want out. I’ve had it. I am so tired. I am twenty and I am already exhausted.” What happened to the old me, the one that used to love Life every Sunday night?

Thanks to a combination of meditation techniques and wonderful support, I completed my exams and began to recover. To this day I cannot thank enough the people who picked me up from my lows and helped me rebuild my motivation and confidence. I survived exam term and so should you.

How do we find peace and calm in a frantic term? Mindfulness. Mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT) is a series of techniques that revolve around a form of meditation helping to break the downward spiralling cycles of anxiety, stress and sadness. They are about observation without criticism. A simple analogy is to think of your thoughts like the weather. When unhappiness or stress hover overhead, rather than taking it personally, you learn to treat them as if they were black clouds in the sky, and observe them with curiosity as they drift pass.

Initially, I was very sceptical over the benefits of meditation and believed it was only ever prescribed by doctors to help women control their breathing during pregnancy. But after I was recommended to try it by both my GP and the University Counselling Service, reading guides and practising the basic techniques, I found it offered a tremendous insight into my thought process and helped me defeat the negative thought cycle. Mindfulness replaced the benefits of medication in helping me overcome depression.

Whether you are experiencing depression or anxiety, the thoughts are all-consuming and you are unable to think of anything else. A simple meditation or a calm ‘mindful’ walk allows the opportunity to take a step back and analyse situations in a more rational matter. It is very easy to obsess about upcoming exams and be in stuck in a cycle of negativity about the amount of revision left or a lack of motivation. If you feel that you can relate to this, then you should try to find mechanisms that can refresh the mind and bring clarity back into your life.

Mindfulness: finding calm in a frantic world

Mindfulness is not just about meditation; it provides a momentary escape from madness and stress in order to restore reality. There are other forms of being self-aware and coping with pressure. If mediation is not for you, there are many alternatives.  Exercise and sport are opportunities to break up revision and boost your serotonin. If you are not feeling active, you can still regularly pull yourself away from your desk and go for a walk or meet a friend for a coffee.

Some colleges have already started to help students gain access to mindfulness classes and resources. Clare ran a series of workshops last term and up-and-coming weekly sessions in Queens’ were over-subscribed in hours. This is a promising start to giving students access and an opportunity to try mindfulness, but this form of meditation is not just for coping with exam term stress, it is a life skill. US Marines use it, the happiest man in the world practises it and you should give it a go too.

Useful Links:

University Counselling Service

Mindfulness at Clare

Mindfulness: Finding Peace in a Frantic World


How do you relieve stress during exam term? Let us know in the comments below.