Last week was a great week; I felt like a totally new person at week’s end, which was my goal when the week started. The week started with a full moon and ended with a Friday the thirteenth; not exactly auspicious if you are at all superstitious. It is also the run up to exams, when daily stresses are compounded by the added pressures unique to attempting two advanced units. A lot of things converge, and for me, the physical, mental and emotional flexibility to manage stress are a point of focus this year. We all know how adversely stress can affect us, but what is most effective at relieving it? A very good friend of mine is writing a graduate degree in counseling psychology, and my husband is a psychiatrist. They are an excellent support system who helped me build coping strategies, including the ‘Last Tango’ before exams.
Coping strategies amount to a kind of training program and sets of options that allow me to choose my responses and keep my objectives in mind. It sounds simple, but it really is not all that easy, especially when the stress is on. My ‘Last Tango’ week turned out to be a wonderful strategy to put everyday stresses in perspective , prepare to focus on my goals, and face exams on my own terms. Another great friend of mine reminded me that we all have complicated lives. There are as many complications and stressful situations as there are students in the program; there are also as many different ways to manage the distance learning and exam experience. But stress hormones are stress hormones. My plan this year included some time dedicated to reducing my April cortisol surges so I can be objective, detached, and focused when I need to be.
Practicing detachment is an important part of my ‘exam mental health’ regimen this year. I relish the ability to set things aside and really focus. This is sometimes easier said than done. Every year it seems like there is a conspiracy to send extra tidbits of stress my way just as revisions and exams begin. This year is no exception. Let’s compare notes: we have had leaky plumbing, and a change in my professional position. Today I got a surprise counter offer that re-opens what was already settled after a rather emotional process; and everyone needs an answer now. On a more serious note, the University of Pittsburgh, where I will sit exams, has been evacuated 40 times in the last six weeks. Trying to plan a way to manage that stress level and interruptions to exams is a little nerve-wracking.
There are days when I am on my last nerve, even without the stress of revising a year’s worth of materials. My husband and friends helped me plan a week of activities shown to reduce cortisol levels. Effective options included laughing, music, aerobic exercise, crying, and dancing the Argentine Tango. We did it all…‘Banjo Night’ at the Pittsburgh Banjo Club for a fabulous musical interlude, Peter Sellers movies for laughs, then ‘Casablanca’ and ‘Dr Zhivago’ for the other extreme. I hiked the spring pastures with my friend and her ponies for aerobic exercise and danced the Argentine Tango every night with my husband.
Why specifically the Argentine Tango? Who ever researched the Argentine Tango’s affect on stress levels? It turns out my husband did. What woman could turn away from a cabeceo like that? Instead of being on the ‘Ten Best Stressed List’ this year I am gliding into exams in a fabulous dress, the highest heels, a rhythm in my feet, and a rose between my teeth. I hope you try your own ‘Last Tango’ week; let me know what helps you manage the stress leading up to exams.