The section on self-knowledge and resources includes information, e.g. on the influence of an optimistic achievement strategy on studying, self-compassion, perfectionism, stress and anxiety. Pick a topic that interests you!
Do you think that you will manage well even if going gets tough? Do you believe that you will learn things even if they are difficult as long as you make an effort? If you said yes, you probably have courage to take on challenges and are willing to work for learning. This will often lead to good results, which will increase your trust in yourself as a student. This positive cycle will support your learning and often also increases the joy of learning.
If you feel like using an optimistic achievement strategy in studies does not come naturally for you, it might be good for you to read the sections Pesimistic achievement strategy and Self-handicappig achievement strategy. The pages include tips on how to increase your confidence as a student.
Are you worrying over future challenges? Are you reflecting on possible bad outcomes? Preparing for possible bad outcomes makes you work for learning and often helps in performing well in studies. Worrying about things does generally not harm learning; instead, it might give motivation to make an effort for learning. Nevertheless, being worried may make studying feel depleting and stressful.
If you feel overburdened and stressed due to worrying about studying, you can practise separating worrying and beneficial planning from each other. Stressful worrying often involves mulling over the same problems without properly considering solutions. When you are planning your studies and possible challenges pop into your mind, stop and think about concrete ways or approaches to cope with the challenges. Useful approaches may include:
- breaking down goals into smaller, concrete tasks. Read more about self-management.
- planning a timetable carefully
- asking for help from fellow students or teacher to learn something difficult
- revising background information, familiarising yourself with additional material, practising a certain topic
Stress related to studying is usually caused by worrying about the future and possible difficulties. Focusing on the present moment and practising mindfulness have been found to be good ways for reducing stress and worry. You can familiarise yourself with Mindfulness practices e.g. in Into (in Finnish) and the oivamieli.fi website (in Finnish) or the freemindfulness.org website (in English).
Do you often drop out of a course if it seems too difficult? Do you avoid situations where you might appear stupid or could make a fool of yourself? If you are avoiding challenges related to studying or postpone doing this until the last minute, you are not giving yourself an opportunity to succeed. There is always some uncertainty and sometimes also failure involved in learning something new. Having the courage to take on challenges and also occasionally encounter unpleasant emotions also give an opportunity to experience successes and joy of learning.
It is possible to learn skills related to the Regulation of emotions. You can also make it easier to take on challenges with the following measures:
- set reasonable goals for yourself A reasonable goal is appropriate in relation to your background knowledge, available time and other resources.
- break the goals down into concrete, small tasks. Read more about self-management and time management.
- study together with others
- contact a study psychologist already before procrastination has become a vicious cycle where experiences of failure often make you feel like you are a bad student and isolate yourself form more and more situations.
Do you believe that you can finish your study assignments? Do you believe in your abilities even when your assignments seem daunting?
Self-efficacy means the belief that you can achieve what you set out to do. Study-related self-efficacy represents a student’s belief in their ability to learn new information and skills and whether they feel that they can finish their study assignments.
Self-efficacy is often connected to a specific skill – you know that you're good at something. Self-efficacy is not a permanent and situation-independent trait, and it can vary greatly depending on the time and assignment.
Self-efficacy is connected to the understanding that one has of their strengths and weaknesses. A person with high self-efficacy can find joy in their successes and is also able to accept their failures.
The understanding that one has about one’s skills is connected to how much effort they are willing to invest in their studies. If a person doubts their skills from the get-go, it can be difficult to begin any especially challenging assignments.
High self-efficacy is a trait that helps further your studies smoothly, which is why you should pay attention to it. Self-efficacy often increases through one's successes. It can also decrease when you don't succeed. Usually the reactions of other people and any previous good experiences of similar situations have a positive effect on self-efficacy. If you can trust yourself when you begin an assignment, you are more likely to achieve better success.
The next section focuses on self-esteem and provides tips on how to improve your self-esteem and self-efficacy.
Self-esteem is the feeling that you are a good and valuable person just the way you are. Self-efficacy, which was the focus of the previous section, is closely connected to one's actions, while self-esteem is more connected to one's human experience.
You could say that one's self-esteem is high when their self-opinion is more focused on their positive features. However, self-esteem is not a single, unified trait, and it contains different sides. There are many different aspects to life, and people usually feel that they perform better in certain situations than in others. Self-esteem is not necessarily connected to how successful a person is based on external cultural and social indicators. Rather, it is a question of accepting yourself and believing in your possibilities in a realistic manner while also being aware of your limits.
A higher sense of self-esteem fosters coping and independence. It enables a person to have the courage to make decisions about their own life and live life the way they want to without being tied down by the opinions of others. High self-esteem is also connected to one’s ability to value other people. Self-esteem is not just social courage: a shy or withdrawn person can still have high self-esteem.
When a person's self-esteem is high enough, they know their value irrespective of how well they perform during some task. For example, a student should be able to understand that their worth is not based on their latest course grade or evaluation. This can also be seen in a student’s attitude towards challenging study assignments or critiques. Think about what if feels like to fail a test and how you can still carry on even after the occasional setback. It is likely that every student will have some stumbles during the course of their studies.
The connections between one's self-esteem and actions go both ways. Self-esteem – or a lack of it – affects one's actions and solutions. The actions that a person takes and the consequences they face can thus also affect their self-esteem. In this way, both high and low self-esteem can often lead to a self-fulfilling loop. High self-esteem often increases one's readiness to see their skills and the possibilities around them, while lower self-esteem can narrow the number of options that are available. Low self-esteem can lead to a situation where a person feels that they have more to prove and thus perform harder than necessary, which leads to a larger increase in perceived stress.
A person's childhood and youth are important to the development of their self-esteem, but it is important to remember that one can increase their self-esteem later in life as well. Having high self-esteem makes life easier, but even if a person has low self-esteem, it does not mean that they have failed in life. Anyone can learn to cope with low self-esteem.
- To develop your self-esteem, you should really get to know yourself, as high self-awareness is the foundation for high self-esteem.
- Write a list of the things that you are good at and what you are happy with about yourself – everyone has their strengths.
- Ask the people who are close to you about the features and skills that they appreciate about you.
- Try to actively participate in situations where you can receive positive experiences.
- Try to remember all the moments where you have received positive feedback.
- Find a group of people where you can be yourself and where you can find acceptance and encouragement from others.
- Thank and praise others when you think that there is cause for doing so.
- Be truly happy and proud about even the smallest successes in life.
- Be well-prepared for the situations where your skills are put to the test, for example during an exam.
- Take care of yourself: focus on good nutrition, being alert and taking care of your physical well-being, as these can help during any difficult situations that call for self-efficacy.
- Accept the fact that disappointments and failures are a part of life for everyone.
- When something bad happens, try to see it in proportion. Ask yourself whether the matter at hand will have any significance after a year's time.
- Students often focus too intently on what they cannot yet do and what they should still learn. Remember to think about what you already can do and are good at, the things that have brought you praise and positive feedback – you might just surprise yourself!
- Don’t be too hard on yourself even if everything isn’t going your way. Read more about developing your .
Liisa Keltikangas-Järvinen: Hyvä itsetunto
Do you believe that criticising yourself will help you perform better? Do you scold yourself harshly if you fail at something? Unlike what we often think, self-criticism does not lead to success in the long run; on the contrary, it often makes us experience feelings of shame and failure, thus also making us afraid of taking on challenges.
Self-compassion helps us better notice our own difficult emotions and provides us with tools for dealing with these emotions. This increases our well-being and provides us with more resources to do the things we want. Self-compassion is comprised of three areas:
- kindness and a warm regard towards oneself when experiencing difficult emotions and suffering
- an experience that difficulties and suffering are a part of humanity and that others experience the same emotions
- accepting, conscious presence and making observations on one's personal experiences as they are
self-compassion is a skill that can be developed A few exercises to strengthen self-compassion (adapted from the book Kristin Neff: Self-Compassion – the Proven Power of Being Kind to Yourself):
A compassionate gesture
Try if you can find a bodily gesture that you can use to show warmth and compassion to yourself. You can put your hand on your heart and peacefully feel the warmth of your hand and movement of your breathing. Or you can give yourself a hug. Take your time in exploring how you feel. This exercise may seem funny, but a touch (even when directed at yourself) releases oxytocin and helps you feel safety, warmth and compassion.
Making observations on internal speech
- Stop to make observations on your internal speech. Pay attention to what your inner voice is saying in situations that are difficult to you. Pay attention to how you are critical toward yourself, e.g. thoughts such as 'I am lazy' or 'I am hopelessly careless'.
- Try if you can kindly soften your inner critic, for instance, by saying in your mind 'I know I use criticism in trying to help myself to perform better, but the criticism makes me feel miserable.'
- Try if you can say something understanding and encouraging in your mind, as if to a close friend, for example 'I understand that you feel lazy, but your time and energy just was not enough to get everything you wanted in this situation.'
Compassionate mental image:
- Sit comfortably and create a mental image for yourself of a pleasant, peaceful place. For example, the place can be a seashore, forest or some other beautiful place outdoors. Imagine what that place looks, feels, smells and sounds like. Let the peaceful feeling get deeper.
- Next, imagine a friendly, warm and compassionate figure. This figure may be a real person or a fully imaginary figure. The compassionate figure can also be completely abstract, e.g. a white light. Try to create a mental image of this kind and compassionate figure as vividly as possible.
- If you feel any kind of suffering or discomfort, you can think what comforting and friendly words this figure would say to you. Create a mental image of the voice of the compassionate figure and the emotions it conveys.
- Let go of the mental image and focus on sensing what your breathing and body now feels like.
Practising mindfulness helps you to develop compassion towards yourself. Mindfulness involves practising a state where all emotions are allowed. This is practised by paying attention to how things are experienced. It does not entail analysing, but instead observing experiences as they are. For example, you can find mindfulness exercises at the Self-compassion website.
References and further reading:
Christopher Germer (2009): The Mindful Path to Self-Compassion. Freeing Yourself from Destructive Thoughts and Emotions.
Paul Gilbert (2009): The Compassionate Mind: A New Approach to Life's Challenges
Kristin Neff (2011): Self- Compassion – the Proven Power of Being Kind to Yourself
Do you work hard for your studies, but often feel that you could do even more? Do you use a lot of time to finish assignments, but are still not quite satisfied with the result?
Having ambition and setting high goals encourage you to perform well. However, if you easily regret even the smallest faults in your performance and are consumed by the idea that you could always do more, you might be dealing with perfectionism. It might seem difficult to take on assignments if you have set your target level unrealistically high and you are haunted by the possibility of failure. On the other hand, once you have started working, it is difficult to stop, as there is always some room for improvement. A perfectionist expects himself or herself to perform perfectly and often even the slightest criticism may feel crushing and is perceived to concern the entire personality. You can recognise perfectionism from the following ways of thinking:
- 'All or nothing' way of thinking, where performance is deemed either good or bad, nothing in between
- 'I should still do...', ideas of doing something more or better keep popping in mind
- more focus is given on the negative than the positive feedback, and even slight criticism feels extremely bad
- you believe that others perform excellently without any major effort or stress in everything they do and that you should also aim at this
Unreasonably high goals and demands towards yourself can easily lead to anxiety, a feeling of being worse than others or insufficiency as well as stress. If you recognise a tendency towards perfectionism in yourself, reflecting on the following issues may be beneficial:
When was the last time you stopped to listen to your own thoughts and emotions? How about the messages of your body? Stopping for a moment and kindly paying attention to how you feel can help you notice what is going on in yourself and what kinds of thoughts are moving through your mind. You can try if you could regard yourself like a friend, with warmth, respect and understanding. Try if you can simply pay attention to how you are doing right now without trying to change anything. For example, you can use the Listening me exercise for help or find some useful practices on self-compassion.org website. Little by little, practising self-compassion can also help you also perceive your own imperfection more benevolently.
We do not necessarily notice our own thoughts or recognise them as nothing but thoughts until we stop to listen to ourselves. Noticing demanding thoughts that you direct at yourself (e.g. 'I should be better...') can help you distance yourself from the thoughts and also notice other points of view. For example, writing a diary can help you structure your own thoughts and related emotions.
Stopping in the moment and noticing your own emotions can help you identify your personal needs. What am I trying to accomplish with better performance? What do I need right now? What is important to me? If most focus is on the performance, meeting other people's expectations or avoiding possible future failures, it may be difficult to notice what you need right now, what is good right now or what brings joy.
Positive feedback to self
What have you already been able to complete? What has been going well today? If your best friend had performed same as you, what kind of feedback would you give to him or her?
You can consciously pay attention to your successes and give positive feedback to yourself. You can not only give positive feedback to yourself on performing successfully, but also for trying, making progress and learning. Paying attention to small steps forward is particularly important when you are prone to the 'all or nothing' way of thinking. The positive feedback that you give to yourself helps to divert attention to developing and learning. In contrast, strong self-criticism often stems from fears and feelings of shame and directs attention to the avoidance of failure.
What is a good enough performance? How do you recognise a realistic goal?
Of course, the amount of work needed in studying can also be estimated based on study credits to some extent. It is also worth finding out about the actual requirements of courses or, for instance, the expectations of partners in group work; these may be more reasonable than the requirements in your mind! It might also be important to reflect on your personal priorities. Which course do I want to devote particular effort in? Where is it enough to make less effort? Are my studies and leisure time in balance? If the amount of tasks seems excessive in relation to the time available, clearly thought out prioritisation can help you reduce stress. In order to maintain your personal well-being and a good ability to study, it is not a good idea to compromise on rest and recovery, at least not for long. Planning beforehand how much time you will use on studying and when it is your time off on a daily basis usually provides a beneficial way for restricting time used on work. It might be good to set time limits for doing things if the amount of time used in finalising and improving output could actually be used for something that means even more to you.
Read also this article about perfectionism in the Hyvä terveys ('Good Health') magazine.
References and further reading:
self-compassion.org (exercises for developing self-compassion)
Paul Gilbert (2009): The Compassionate Mind: A New Approach to Life's Challenges
Aini Jaari (2007): Kylliksi itselleni. Edita, Helsinki.
Emotions help us react quickly to different situations. Studying often evokes both positive and negative emotions: interest and enthusiasm when learning new things, while on the other hand uncertainty, fear and frustration if challenges appear to be too big. The ability to regulate one's emotions is connected to smooth progress of studies.
Smothering and avoiding emotions
Do you aim to avoid situations where feelings of insecurity, fear or shame arise? Are you trying to ignore unpleasant emotions or at least hide them from others? These methods will make you feel better momentarily, but they can also prevent you from taking on challenges. For instance, if you talk about the feeling of insecurity with others, you may generally notice that nearly all students are familiar with the experience. When unpleasant emotions take over, we often imagine that we are the only person going through the emotion and feel that we are worse than others. By being brave enough to express emotions, you give other people an opportunity to support you and at the same time the relationships may become closer.
Recognising and naming emotions
Sometimes emotions are clear, e.g. we feel joy and pride when we succeed in a challenging task. Nonetheless, sometimes it is more difficult to recognise emotions and we may experience, e.g. a vague sense of anxiety and low mood without knowing what exactly is going on. Emotions are felt throughout the body, and pausing to pay attention to the sensations in the body may help recognise emotions. For example, you can use the Listening me exercise for help.
Naming emotions can help us distance ourselves slightly from our emotions when we feel like we are tangled up in them. When we make a note in our minds that 'this is fear' or 'this is confusion', it might be easier for us to notice that emotions are transient events in the mind and body.
Read more about emotions in the body at the Emotions website of the Finnish Association for Mental Health (in Finnish) or at npr.org website (in English).
Watch Professor Lauri Nummenmaa's lecture Tunteet mielessä, aivoissa ja kehossa ('Emotions in the mind, brain and body', in Finnish)
Re-evaluation of a situation or personal reaction
In addition to the instant reaction related to the situation, the emotional state is also affected by how we interpret the situation and our own reactions. For example, if you notice that your pulse is rising and hands are sweating before giving a presentation, you can either interpret that this will ruin the presentation or think that a small increase in activation means that you are suitably alert to give a successful presentation. We often make very fast interpretations, which either strengthen the emotional response or tone it down.
Discussing with others is a good method for finding new perspectives to situations that evoke emotions. You can also structure your thoughts and emotions by writing a diary or simply stopping to think about situations that evoke emotions and what they mean to you.
Ability to calm down
Positive emotions, such as excitement and curiosity make us take on things and promote our goals. In turn, negative emotions, such as fear and shame activate a need to avoid threatening situations and make us seek ways for solving problems. In addition to emotions that orientate us towards action, it is also important to recognise emotions that guide us to calm down and rest and thus gather new strength.
Aim to recognise ways to calm down that work well in your everyday life. These may include:
- moving in nature and spending time outdoors
- doing something pleasant using a lot of focus, e.g. listening to music with focus or cooking so that you are focused on sensing the smells, flavours and colours
- exercise that calms you down, such as yoga or stretching
- touch, such as stroking a pet
What is anxiety?
Normal anxiety is a natural part of life; nearly everyone is anxious sometimes. Being anxious becomes a problem when taking care of matters related to everyday life or studying becomes difficult or is left completely undone due to anxiety. Anxiety can be general anxiety related to social situations or, for example being nervous about performance or eating situations. Examples of consequences of social anxiety causing functional disturbance include avoiding giving oral answers in the study group and dropping out of courses due to the fear of having to give oral presentations. Building new friendships or romantic relationships can be challenging for those struggling with starting conversation. Some of the harm caused by social anxiety is formed out of the person suffering from nervousness not training his or her social skills due to the avoidance of social situations.
Genetic factors and an inherent temperament type, shyness, probably underlie anxiety. In our culture, being shy is often perceived as a problematic approach and, indeed, many would like to shed the characteristic. However, temperament types are relatively permanent ways to confront new situations. In fact, the way the environment encounters shyness is more likely to cause suffering than the shyness itself. Out of environmental factors, controlling, strict and humiliating upbringing attitudes and socially traumatising experiences in adolescence have been indicated to play a role in the development of anxiety. Bullying appears to be an individual risk factor in the background.
Methods facilitating learning
It is not always possible to notice someone's anxiety from the outside, so the knowledge of it may come as a surprise to the teacher or fellow student. Nevertheless, there are almost always students who are anxious in the group. In particular, performance anxiety is quite common among university students. If it comes naturally to the teacher, he or she may say that the students have a permission to feel anxious – this is often a good starting point. Students can be encouraged to bring up their anxiety. There is no single correct way to act. The person with anxiety does not benefit from getting away with less than others. Awareness of accepting anxiety, alternatives and support gives them more assistance. It is good to think whether the student will benefit from, e.g. encouragement, completing a special section in a smaller group etc. A safe and accepting atmosphere that takes individuality into account benefits everyone's learning. It is important to take small steps towards situations that are considered to cause anxiety by gradually increasing the demands level. Being overly critical or demanding will make the situation worse. With suitable conditions, shy people can develop to be even more socially apt than a talkative person running head-first into social situations.
Read more about anxiety in the publication by the FSHS Esiintymisjännittäjille apua ('Help for those with performance anxiety', in Finnish).
Also familiarise yourself with an article on the website of the Tiede magazine Tenttipelon voi taltuttaa ('You can tame examination anxiety', in Finnish).
Everyone experiences stress sometimes and no one will be able to make it through university studies without any stress. Good stress will improve performance and keep you alert. If the amount of stress is appropriate, leisure time and a normal amount of sleep will be enough to recover. In turn, when harmful stress is prolonged, it will affect a number of areas of life and diminish well-being. It is important to intervene in harmful, long-term stress and sometimes it is a good idea to seek help in order to put an end to the stress.
Are you stressed?
Do you feel like stress is building up without noticing? Learn to recognise your personal ways to react to stress so that you can prevent harmful stress from forming with less effort. Stress affects body, mind and our actions. Common characteristics of stress:
- Body: pulse is elevated, muscles (e.g. neck and shoulder area) are tense, breathing is superficial, head is aching, there are changes in appetite, difficulty falling asleep and waking up at night, stomach issues
- Thoughts: unfinished work is going through your mind, increased worrying and dwelling on things, 'I cannot', 'I won't have time', 'I'm not able to' thoughts are common, thinking gets more narrow and it is difficult to see solutions or come up with new ideas
- Emotions: you are annoyed, frustrated, anxious, angry, nervous, tense, feel impatient
- Actions: struggling to prioritise things, difficult not to do anything or rest, messing about, jumping from one thing to another, toiling beyond your means, avoiding tasks, procrastinating
How can stress be managed?
- Invest in recovery: good stress will become harmful if we are unable to rest and recover from stress often enough. Do you remember to schedule free moments and at least one day off each week in your timetable? A regular lifestyle will also help: regular and versatile meals, good daily rhythm and regular exercise.
- Take on your assignments: avoiding and postponing difficult or laborious tasks will increase stress. Could you break down the tasks into easier sub-tasks or could you ask someone for help?
- Make a realistic timetable: if the stress is caused by accumulated tasks and a large workload, prioritise the tasks and make a timetable. Read more about time management.
- Set reasonable goals: if the stress is caused by the high level of demands you have set for yourself, try if you can reduce the demands at least in some area. Read more about perfectionism and self-compassion.
- Exercise while listening to your body: regular exercise and physical fitness help recover from stress faster. Physical exercise elevates your mood and produces experiences of success. If your body or mind appears to be going into overdrive, exercise while listening to your body, as high-intensity exercise causes physiological stress and makes you feel worse.
- Spend time outdoors: research has shown that moving or spending time outdoors calms down stress reactions in the body and mind. Even spending time in a park in an urban environment reduces stress. Read more about the influence of nature on well-being at the luontoon.fi website (in English).
- Talk about things that are on your mind: when you are stressed, it is harder to think about things from different viewpoints and come up with solutions to a situation that causes burden. Talking to others may make things clearer and it is often comforting to hear that others also face similar challenges and experience stress.
- Touch: touching releases oxytocin and helps regulate stress. Can you hug someone, ask a friend to massage your shoulders, or stroke a pet.
- Practise mindfulness: stress feeds off your mind wandering in future or past events, e.g. we are afraid of potential failure in a coming examination or regretting past choices. Mindfulness involves practising a state where all emotions are allowed. This is practised by paying attention to how things are experienced here and now. It does not entail analysing, but instead observing experiences as they are. Practising mindfulness regularly has been shown to reduce stress. You can find mindfulness exercises at freemindfulness.org, at Into (in Finnish) and the oivamieli.fi website (in Finnish). Also get to know the mindfulness workshops.
When will stress become exhaustion?
Long-term stress related to studying may gradually become study exhaustion. You can recognise study exhaustion from the following features:
- exhaustion and tiredness that will not shift with normal rest
- becoming cynical, studying no longer feels significant or sensible
- your confidence is reduced, you start doubting your ability to cope with your studies and feel inadequate
Anxiety is often also related to exhaustion and your mood may be sad. If you recognise these symptoms, you must reduce your workload. It is a good idea to ask for support in order to deal with the situation and you can contact a study psychologist or the FSHS.