Attention and Control

Attention and Concentration Control
Enhance Academic Performance Through Mindful Relaxation & Attentional Focus Strategies

Awareness – Identify Your Cues that Tell You to Initiate Coping

Emotionality: Become aware of Bodily Tension

Cues include being overly upset, jittery, nervous, tense, heart pounding, shallow breathing, panicky, knees bouncing, hands sweaty or shaking, lump in throat, eyebrows knit tightly, shoulders hunched.

Worry: Become aware of your Critical Self Talk

Cues include worrying about your performance, comparing yourself to others, ruminating too long and fruitlessly over alternate answers or responses, being preoccupied with bodily reactions associated with anxiety, ruminating about possible consequences for doing poorly on the test (disapproval, punishment, loss of status or esteem, damage to career plans), thoughts or feelings of inadequacy (active self criticism or labeling self “stupid” or "worthless).

Calm Your Body Through Abdominal Breaths and Mindful Relaxation

Use Abdominal Breaths

- long and slow – exhale and “breathe” through areas of tension – each time you exhale, feel the tension melting away… and feel more and more relaxed… Note that your abdomen rises as you inhale, not your chest.

Say to Yourself -

(abdomen rises as you inhale) “I am calm…” (abdomen falls as you exhale) “I am warm…” Increasing the feeling of warmth in your hands initiates what Dr. Herbert Bensen calls the Relaxation Response.

Refocus with Attentional Focus Strategies (TIC-TOC)

Strategy 1: Increase Your Focusing Skill

Train your mind to bring your attention back to a word, your breath, or an activity, such as walking or listening to music. Adopt an attitude of friendly acceptance. When your attention wanders, gently and compassionately bring your attention back, again and again. These techniques are similiar to those taught in mindfulness meditation.

Strategy 2: Develop Performance Rituals

Create a physical and mental atmosphere that helps you to concentrate, and use it every time you study, write a paper, or take a test. These rituals are designed to cue both the body and the mind to initiate focused concentration.

Strategy 3: Notice any Critical Self-Talk

When you notice “Task Interfering Cognitions,” use a neutral phrase to gently cue you to refocus your critical self talk, such as TIC-TOC.

Strategy 4: Use Compassionate Self Talk to Refocus Concentration

Cultivate self-compassion, which actually helps to improve performance. Practice using short, kind phrases that focus on positives rather than negatives, the present rather than the past or future, and the process rather than the outcome. These are called “Task Orienting Cognitions.” Write your phrases on a card to use while studying or writing. See examples, next page.

Use Compassionate Self Talk To Gently Refocus Concentration Back to the Task or Exam

As you learn to monitor your critical self talk, you can reframe your observations in a compassionate manner, similar to how a kind friend or coach might helpfully point out where to redirect your focus back to your task or exam. Practice using short phrases that focus on positives rather than negatives, the present rather than the past or future, and the process rather than the outcome.

Create a list of compassionate “Task Orienting Cognitions.”

Write your phrases on cards to pull out and use while studying so that you can learn to say them “automatically” to yourself when you are in a test-taking situation. Here are some examples:

  • What is it that this is asking me to do?
  • Hmm, exactly what does the question ask? It doesn’t say this…or this…it just asks…
  • I notice that I’m getting anxious. That’s okay, it just means I’m motivated. And I can think about what I can do about it.
  • I see that I’m starting to worry and look for tricks… so, instead.. just what does it say? What’s the basic question, what’s the main point?
  • I’m getting lost in the details; that’s okay, let’s stand back and look at the big picture.
  • What a stupid question! Haha, yup, TIC –TOC. Okay, maybe I just don’t get the point. Let me do a quick job on this one and invest my energy where it will pay off more. Now let’s see, what does it say exactly…no need to interpret or add anything – just exactly what does it say?
  • Damn, I should know that …. oh yeah, TIC-TOC. Just let it go now, no need to get upset… take a breath…. and mark the question so I can come back to it later for a fresh look at it — that often works.
  • Well here it comes, just as I expected; I’m feeling anxious. Just take a moment now to breathe slowly… I am calm…I am warm…good. A little anxiety is to be expected and it’s good… I can use it to keep me going.
  • Uh oh! Lots more to do before I finish… oh yeah, TIC-TOC. Now, relax… just take one question at a time.
  • OMG, I’m not going to be able to do this! I’m going to lose control! What if I have a panic attack right in the middle of the class? Oh my… well…. TIC-TOC. Now take an abdominal breath, and refocus… Yes, now, what does this next question say?
  • They finished the exam early. I wonder… That’s okay. There’s no way I can know what’s going on with them. Forget them and just focus back on what I’m doing. Hey, this is working – I’m into this! Good!

Settle, Wendy (2001-16). Enhancing academic performance through mindful relaxation and attentional focus strategies. University of Notre Dame, Notre Dame, IN. Phrases adapted from a classic article: Meichenbaum, D., Therapist manual used in study of “Cognitive modification for test anxious college students,” Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 1972, 39, 370-380.