Jiva Masheder has an MSc in Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy, is a supervisor for other teachers and provides content for top-rated app Aura. She has been teaching mindfulness and self-compassion as her main job since 2009 and loves sharing how the practices that continue to help her so much are transformative for others as well.

There are many factors that determine your level of success in learning and testing, and aptitude and intelligence are just two of them. Your ability to focus effectively, find a good mental space to learn and test, and not feel undermined by intrusive thoughts, are also important factors.

The good news is that practicing mindfulness can help address all of these challenges. It can even help improve your working memory, which is definitely useful when you're taking a test! If you recognize any of the issues below as obstacles to your learning and testing experience, read on for some solutions.

You're too distracted

We all know that we want a focussed mind to achieve anything. But often we find our mind going all over the place…. not helped by the constant allure of the internet and all that fascinating information we can access any time we want. Does that sound familiar?

The good news is that we can consciously work with this and like all habits, the more we focus and don’t follow every wandering thought or impulse, the easier it becomes. We can train our minds to focus better by using a simple attentional anchor like our feet or the breath–we don’t need to do anything or achieve anything when we rest here so we can really just rest our attention. 

➡ Click here to improve your focus

We cannot force our mind to be focussed; the more pressure we put on ourselves to do that, the more restless and distracted it will become. Instead, we are aiming for a relaxed awareness–not zoning out or going anywhere else, but not trying to get anywhere, either.

Start by sitting comfortably and closing your eyes, or lowering your gaze to look at something neutral and not distracting, maybe the floor or a blank bit of wall. Then place your attention to the contact points where your body is supported: your feet on the floor, bum on the chair, maybe your back on the back of the chair. See if you can get really interested in exactly how they feel–hard? Soft? Warm? Cold? What shape? You don’t need to describe, it’s all about getting interested; where interest goes, attention follows.

Your mind is sure to wander, probably after quite a short time. I can assure you that everyone experiences this, so you’re not alone! When it happens, don’t assume you’re ‘bad at this’–just bring your attention back to your contact points. 

Doing this again and again (and again, and again) is how we can learn to focus. Every time you bring the mind back from wandering off into the fields of past, future and speculation, you are learning to focus better. Frame it that way, not as a failure!

Scroll down for a recording of this practice.

You're frozen with fear

A low level of nerves can be helpful when you’re taking a test, but over a certain level, you can feel frozen with anxiety, unable to think straight, or at all. That is how our brain is when it’s overloaded with emotion–the emotional parts take over and drown out our higher cognitive functions. Sound familiar? 

Fortunately, there are ways to soothe and calm anxiety that work both as long-term solutions, and topically when you’re feeling anxious or stressed. And they’re very simple to do! Anxiety tends to be very driven by thoughts, so anything that takes your attention away from thoughts, particularly worry thoughts, will help.

➡ Click here to calm anxiety

A helpful exercise is to follow breathing. I recommend sitting comfortably, putting your hands on your belly, and if it’s tight, seeing if the muscles here will relax a little. Then gently invite breathing into your belly–no puffing and blowing, just let the breath go here naturally. See if you can notice belly rising, belly falling, again and again. You can say to yourself, ‘rising, falling, rising, falling’ or ‘breathing in, breathing out’ with each breath. 

Belly breathing is much more calming than the upper-chest breathing that generally goes with feeling anxious, and we can calm ourselves both by directing breathing low into the belly and also by resting attention there. Two in one!

I’d still be prepared to bet that your mind will wander off somewhere else–but really, don’t worry, everyone’s mind does that! Just bring it back kindly, as if you were calling a pet or a young child over to sit with you–and go with the next breath.

Do this for 5-10 minutes to start and see how you feel afterwards.

Scroll down for a recording of this practice.

You're listening to your inner critic

This is the voice you hear in your head, saying that you can’t do it, that you’ll never amount to anything, that everyone else is better at it than you… or perhaps something even harsher than that. Does this sound familiar? 

You are so not alone with this! Although hardly anyone talks about it—perhaps because we think it’s shameful, or we’re concerned that if we voice these inner thoughts someone might agree—almost everyone experiences an inner critic. I sincerely hope that no-one in your life does agree with these voices!

The good news is that we are not stuck with these internal critics! We can develop a kinder inner voice that will motivate us like a kind, caring teacher would. This kinder inner voice is much nicer to live with, and happens to be a more sustainable source of motivation. Cultivating this kinder inner voice won’t happen overnight—no worthwhile change ever does—but it is doable.

➡ Click here to be kinder to yourself

The solution to this problem is actually very simple: Try saying kind things to yourself! Perhaps you’ve had that modeled to you by a good teacher–something like ‘you know you can do this’ or ‘you’ve got what it takes’ or ‘just stick with it, you’ll get there’. 

Do this as often as you can, and particularly when you’re facing any kind of challenge. Or you can say words of congratulation when you do something, even something routine ‘it’s great that you got the washing up done’ or ‘well done for doing your daily lesson’. 

Over time, these kinder words will start to take the place of the harsh ones.

Scroll down for a recording of this practice.

Having trouble getting started?

If you're new to mindfulness, or if you're more of an audio learner, why not try a guided practice? Listening along to one of these before your next big exam can help you achieve a calmer mental state.

Improve your focus
Calm your anxiety
Be kinder to yourself

Remember, mindfulness is a muscle!

These exercises can be helpful both topically, in a time of stress or anxiety, and if practiced over time will help to calm and soothe your  nervous system so that stress or anxiety will be reduced.

It’s usually helpful to set a time to do the practice, possibly use a recording, and remember that everyone’s mind wanders. It’s really worth the investment of your time—like anything, it takes a little time for the benefits to show but I can assure they will. You’ll find yourself feeling more steady and calm, have more clarity, and perhaps even be kinder to yourself.