Finding Your Optimal Study Environment

Now that you have your schedule and materials organized to set you up for success, it is time to consider your environment.  Many people underestimate the importance of their study space, but where you study is important to facilitate learning and reviewing the materials that are necessary for your classes.   While some people can concentrate well under almost any circumstance, the majority of students need a specific type of environment to foster good study habits.

When you identify study time in your schedule (link), you should also identify where this will take place.  If you have thought of all of the places that meet your needs beforehand, you should never be stuck if plans change or a space is unavailable.  The following are all things you should consider in choosing your optimal study environment.

Visual Distractions.  Some areas of your home, school, and community are busier than others.  You should consider the amount of activity happening in different environments and whether you can maintain your attention.  For some, it doesn’t bother them if people are walking by.  Others may look up at every person as they walk past.  Decide whether having activity around you is distracting or not.

Noise.  Noise is also an important factor to consider in planning your study environment.  Some students have better focus in areas without background noise, while others aren’t bothered by it.  For example, if you go to a coffee shop, you know that there will likely be background conversations as people order their coffee and talk with their friends.  Noise isn’t only caused by other people.  It can also be the radio, TV, or construction happening outside.  As you work in different environments, be mindful of your concentration and how it is affected by different noise levels.  Once you know how your body responds, you will have a better idea of what to look for in a study space.

Temptations.  Even if you have set up a study area that is best for you, sometimes temptations get the best of us.  It is easy to watch TV, talk on the phone, or get involved in your favorite activities if they are readily available to you while you study.  If you often find yourself getting involved in other activities while you should be studying, you may wish to study outside of the home to reduce potential distractions.

Physical Comfort.  How you feel within the environment is another important component in choosing your ideal study area.  If you constantly feel uncomfortable, it is hard to stay focused.  Choose spaces that have tables and chairs that meet your needs.  Also, consider whether the area has adequate lighting.  For example, it might be difficult to read somewhere that has dim lighting.  Air temperature is another consideration.  If you feel too hot or too cold, it will keep you from focusing on the task at hand. Finally, if you are a student who, whether for health reasons or for comfort, prefers to eat or drink while studying, find an area that allows food and drink in their facility.

Flexibility.  After you take a mindful approach to see how you react to different environments when studying, it will be easy to come up with a list of places that match your preference.  Remember to be flexible.  What works for you as an individual might not work if you change your study approach.  For example, you will likely have different needs if you are working with a partner or group.

Planned Breaks. Everyone has different capacities for concentration.  While working in an environment that suits you best will help sustain your focus, it is also important to recognize our individual differences.  Plan breaks as needed.  Two ways to plan a break is either by time or activity completion.  For example, if you find you can only concentrate for a half hour, schedule in purposeful break for every 30 minutes of studying.  If you find it is easier to take a break after completing a task, break up your reading, notes, or assignments into meaningful sections and take a break after your complete each one.

Now that we have covered what you can do to organize your time, materials, and space, we will be shifting to strategies to address specific skills you will need as you work your way through your post-secondary career.  Join us next time!

Addressing Unhelpful Thinking Styles: A Coping Strategy for Students Experiencing Anxiety

We are pleased to welcome Katie D’Fantis to the Achievement Advantage Blog.   Katie is an LPC, a board certified music therapist, and an EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing) clinician who works with teens and adults. She specializes in helping those who struggle with relationship issues, anxiety, and issues of self worth that stem from adverse life events such as grief/loss, abuse, and other traumatic experiences.  You can learn more about Katie's experience and services she offers, by visiting The Balanced Living Center's website.

overwhelmingthoughts.jpg

You can often hear me ask my clients “Where do you feel [that emotion] in your body?” And very often when the emotion they’re feeling is anxiety, my clients say they feel it in their head like “a dark cloud” or “a tornado” or like “static on a television set”. If you have ever struggled with anxiety, then you know that anxiety clouds your thoughts, perceptions and beliefs about yourself, others, and your experiences within the world. I have heard countless stories from my clients who are students and/or professionals about how these unhelpful ways of thinking have gotten in the way of their school work, preparing for a test or presentation, trying something new, or going out with friends on the weekend. As we embark on a new school year - a time when anxiety can run high - I want to share with you a tool that I find myself teaching almost every one of my clients at some point in our work together.

Below is a list of Unhelpful Thinking Styles. These are unhelpful ways of thinking that we all use from time to time and you may find that there are a select few that you use more often. Here are the steps to using this as a coping skill to develop more helpful ways of thinking:

Read
Read through the left column and take note of which unhelpful thinking styles you have used in the past/noticed yourself using presently. Become familiar with the ones you use most often.

Notice
Over the next week, just notice when you use an unhelpful thinking style. You will most likely notice you’ve used it after the fact; this is completely normal and is a step in the right direction!

Name It
Once you’ve noticed it, name the unhelpful thinking style. Just naming it and calling it what it is helps to diminish its power in the moment. For example, “I’m totally going to bomb this test! ...oh wait, that was me jumping to conclusions. I always do that before a big test, don’t I?!”

Work To Change It
Now it’s time to familiarize yourself with the right column of the page. These alternative responses are the ideal/more positive ways of thinking.  Over time and with continued work to improve your self-awareness, you’ll become better at noticing when you use these unhelpful thinking styles. Then you can work to change them by substituting the unhelpful thought with the alternative responses. Or, better yet, you’ll be able to anticipate the unhelpful thought, stop it before it happens, and the alternative responses will become your default way of thinking.

Wood, J.C. (2010).  The cognitive behavioral therapy workbook for personality disorders: A step-by-step program.  Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Publications, Inc.

Wood, J.C. (2010). The cognitive behavioral therapy workbook for personality disorders: A step-by-step program. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Publications, Inc.

Mastering these steps will take practice. Don’t forget to have compassion for yourself and to be patient. Think about it this way, you’ve likely spent years perfecting these unhelpful styles as your default, so naturally it would take time to change your default way of thinking. Practice makes permanent.

Wishing you all a successful start to the school year!

A Counselor's Take on Depression in Adult Students

We are excited to introduce our first guest blogger, Lauren O’Brien, a Licensed Professional Clinical Counselor who works with older children through adult clients at Lifestance/PsychBC in Fairlawn, Ohio.  While she works with many clients with a variety of needs, Lauren specializes in treating clients with depression and anxiety.  You can learn more about her background and services by visiting her Facebook page or her Psychology Today page.  We hope you find her insight helpful!

“Where does depression hurt?  Everywhere.”  I think about this commercial when working with clients because, although the verbiage seems cliché, it is quite true.  Even though the commercial may be talking about everywhere in regards to the physical body, when working with my clients we discuss how “everywhere” can refer to many facets of life.  For the sake of this blog post, let’s use school and work.  Depression is often a vicious cycle of minimal motivation, disinterest in self-care or hygiene, withdrawal, decrease in self-esteem or self-worth, and the cycle continues. 

Let’s put this into play with a fictional student named Rob.  Rob has low self-esteem and recently has been experiencing depressed mood.  He has not been feeling well and has minimal motivation to do ADL’s, or activities of daily living. Rob has skipped his morning shower for the last few days, and this morning is disgusted with his greasy hair and unpleasant body odor.  He normally plays softball in a recreational league on Tuesdays and Thursdays but has felt that the past two weeks the team is better off without him.  He has turned down many opportunities over the last two weeks to spend time with friends and has begun to miss classes at his university.

Using the example of Rob, it appears he struggled with depressed mood and ultimately it affected his self-esteem, relationships, school status and probably several other facets of his life.  I can only imagine that if Rob’s cycle would continue without help, it would continue to hinder social interactions, hygiene, relationships and jeopardize his status as a student at his university. Depressive thoughts can contribute to irrational thought processes, and those thoughts can trigger emotions and behaviors. In therapy, I like to use thought logs to assist in challenging irrational beliefs.  A thought log looks something like this:

  1. Event: Received F  on Test
  2. Thought: I'm the stupidest person that has ever existed
  3. Consequence (Emotion or Behavior): Embarrassment, Sadness, Shame, Withdrawal from Classes
  4. Alternative Response: OK- I bombed that test.  How can I better prepare myself for next time?

I challenge my clients by utilizing an exercise like this in daily life to help alter thought processes. 

Coping skills can assist in diminishing symptoms. Some of the coping skills that I recommend to clients are keeping a schedule, exercising, journaling, staying involved with friends and family members, and reaching out to a trusted person when the thoughts get the best of you.

I feel there are times in every student’s life where they may experience symptoms of depression; that does not necessarily mean this student has a depression diagnosis but is experiencing depressive symptoms.  Even if you don’t have a diagnosis, it is important to seek out the support you need.  Partnering with a mental health provider can often help you work through periods of depressed mood.  Most postsecondary education institutes have counseling centers that provide services, or you may prefer to find a counselor in a private practice setting.  If you do have a diagnosis, you can visit your institution’s Accessibility Office, who can help you secure appropriate accommodations.  Your mental health provider will be able to write them a letter including information about how your diagnosis impacts your life and what supports you need to be a successful student.

Depression can become overwhelming and at times can lead to suicidal thoughts or plans.  Sadly, suicide is the second leading cause of death in people aged 15-34 as reported by the Center for Disease Control.  There are resources for students who feel suicidal.  Thanks to Logic, the Grammy nominated artist, the national suicide hotline has become more recognizable.  It is 1-800-273-8255.

If Rob sounds like you or someone you know, there is help.  Should you need further assistance, there are plenty of therapists out there who are willing to help, including myself.  Please know that depression is workable, and with the right support and assistance, you can work through the symptoms.  I’m here for you, you are not alone.