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  • Writer's pictureElla Kämper

Psychological flexibility and organized study skills - In theory and practice

Author: Ella Kämper

Check out the original blog entry here:


Introduction

The mental health of university students has been a concern worldwide for years, and the issues have been increasing gradually to this date. Indeed, the mental health of students is a global issue regardless of the country’s situation or ranking. In academic settings, different study demands, and lack of resources together affect an individual’s well-being as well as the level of their study-related engagement and exhaustion. Overextended workload, time management issues, fear of failing and other academic issues are also factors causing stress among university students. Variety of factors affecting students’ well-being also include financial, occupational, socioeconomic, psychosocial, ideological, community and individual level problems.


Compared to their non-student peers, university students have also been found to experience higher levels of distress, which can have long-lasting effects on their health during studies and in their future. Unattended stress may accumulate due to the demands and responsibility of studies. Indeed, burnout among students has been found to correlate with poor academic performance, revealing that there is a connection between students’ well-being and academic progression. Furthermore, students suffering from burnout might lack adequate resources with their academic demands, which may make the students vulnerable for depressive symptoms.


Factors related to increased stress and mental health issues among university students include poor academic performance. To succeed in studies, students need to acquire skills of time-management, planning and other organized study skills. Indeed, academic challenges are usually more related to poor organization skills than lack of intellectuality. Organized study skills and strategies have a direct connection to one’s psychological well-being. For example, task-oriented strategies and skills of time-management have been found to positively affect both study habits and academic progression as well as stress-related outcomes. Therefore, these skills are essential in university studies and should be practiced throughout the studies.


By increasing psychological flexibility, it is possible to learn skills of managing stress, thoughts, and emotions and thus enhance one’s own mental well-being. Psychological flexibility is the goal of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) and refers to a skill to focus on the present moment and live in the pursuit of one’s own goals and values. A psychologically flexible person accepts negative feelings and thoughts as part of the emotional range and processes them, rather than trying to suppress these emotions, which can have long-term negative consequences. Psychological flexibility, thus, reflects an individual's coping mechanisms in difficult life situations. Furthermore, psychological flexibility has been found to have connections to better learning and academic success. Thus, psychological flexibility and organized study skills play a role in promoting one’s mental well-being as well as academic performance.

How to promote psychological flexibility and organized study skills?

Learning to identify strategies that help students cope with different demands and reduce stress can have desirable effects on both students’ well-being and academic success. Indeed, study resources and high self-efficacy can work as promotive factors for study engagement and protective factors against burnout from untreated mental health issues and overwhelming study demands. Thus, attention should be focused not only on psychological challenges but also on how these issues disrupt academic efforts. As a result, adequate help could be planned to promote students’ self-efficacy, motivation and well-being.


Mental health can be improved by various collective actions of society, education included – indeed, mental health concerns everyone. Findings about interventions aiming to promote university students’ well-being have been promising. For example, self-regulation skills have been found to significantly predict the levels of stress and psychological well-being and by developing these skills, students have gained tools to maintain adequate levels of mental health when facing adversity. Meditation and relaxation training have been, in turn, found to reduce anxiety and promote academic performance among students with learning difficulties. Furthermore, interventions aimed at increasing students' self-compassion has been proven to protect students from chronic stress and increase students' well-being.


Along with psychological flexibility, students’ self-regulation and effort and time management skills have been found to manage procrastination. Students with more effective self-regulatory strategies tend to be higher in self-efficacy, manage their time and efforts more effectively and persist longer in the face of academic challenges. These skills can work as tools to support psychological flexibility, for allocating time to live value-based life requires skills of time management. This can further encourage to committed action and enhance the well-being of an individual. In fact, skills of time-management have been found to positively affect study habits and stress-related outcomes, including students’ personal stressors. In order to develop deep learning, critical thinking and problem-solving skills should also be implemented in teaching early on.


Considering students’ emotional self-regulation, learning to recognize one’s own feelings and accepting them, manage stress, make conscious efforts and engage in challenging activities are skills that all students today would greatly benefit from. Furthermore, interventions focusing on improving maladaptive self-efficacy beliefs would be beneficial for students in order to promote their mental well-being and academic performance. For example, individuals who can reappraise their emotions have been found to have better stress-management skills, self-esteem, and life satisfaction and fewer depressive symptoms. In addition, social-emotional skills should be considered as factors influencing academic performance. The way students deal with their negative thoughts and emotions can also affect their learning process.

How does this happen in practice?

All of the skills mentioned above are connected to psychological flexibility. While some individuals might have a tendency to be more psychologically flexible, the processes involved in psychological flexibility can be enhanced through practice.


Here I provide you some practical tips with links for further information on how to promote your psychological flexibility and organized study skills. The following sections provide an overview of the topic, but there are plenty of more information about these practices from various sources. For more information, please see the sources and bibliography provided at the end of the text.


Sub-processes of psychological flexibility

1. Be willing to feel difficult emotions

2. Step back from your thoughts

3. Focus on the present

4. Focus on connection, not comparison

5. Live by your own values

6. Build habits based on your values

Read or listen the article by Steve Rose for more information and practical exercises to each sub-process.


Practical exercises to promote your psychological flexibility:

· Clarifying values (from the course Towards better well-being and studying)

"The purpose of this exercise is to help you reflect on what brings meaning to your life and is important to you."

1. How do you see your life in five years?

2. What is important to you? What brings you meaning and joy?

3. What does a good life consist of?

4. What is the most important thing to you at the moment?

5. What is your biggest wish at the moment?


· Mindfulness exercises: Acting according to your values and accepting your thoughts and emotions

Ways to improve your motivation

Think about what motivates you to study and why you are studying, what is important to you and what your goals are during and after your studies.

· Find the interesting aspects of your courses and try to find methods that can make the work seem interesting to you.

· Discuss with your peers and work together – communicate, collaborate and connect.

· Don’t forget to take breaks – take time and do things that you enjoy outside of studying. This also includes taking care of your nutrition, exercise and sleep. Also, give your learning some time; everyone learns at their own pace. (See the next sections for tips with planning and time management.)

· Remember that there’s more to life than studies. :)

Ways to develop study planning and time management skills

· Experiment with different planning methods, study techniques, learning environments, and know your resources

· · Prioritize your courses and tasks and schedule them accordingly. Then write your plans in a calendar and/or make to-do lists – well begun is half done!

· · Develop your time management skills by tracking your time, planning your time use, monitoring your schedule and prioritizing

Ways to reduce procrastination

· Learning to recognize and accept unpleasant thoughts and emotions (characteristic to psychological flexibility) helps you to recognize your typical procrastination methods and start to develop ways to change these habits

· Make the tasks tempting, realistic and clear

· Chop larger tasks into small concrete steps and control the time you use on them.

· You can for example try the Pomodoro technique (25 mins work, 5 mins break, repeat x 4 and then a break of at least 20 mins) and use the TomatoTimer to control the time you use on your tasks

Overall, strive to be kind to yourself and dare to talk about your thoughts and feelings with others. More people than you think struggle with the same things as you, so don’t stay alone, because you are not alone.


Sources and further information about studying, mental health and access to help:

MIELI Mental Health Finland's basic mission is to promote mental health and prevent psychological distress. MIELI advocates the right of everyone to good mental health. MIELI ry strengthens the mental well-being of everyone living in Finland and supports people in vulnerable life situations.

Nyyti ry promotes the mental health and ability to study of students. They provide students and learning communities with information, support and activities for mental wellbeing and coping. They also do advocacy work for a mental health friendly study environment and to reduce the stigma associated with mental health problems.

· Information about different aspects of life skills, including mental health, time management, studying, stress and life-style habits by Nyyti ry

“With self-compassion, we give ourselves the same kindness and care we’d give to a good friend.”

Kristin Neff, Ph.D. is a pioneer in the study of self-compassion, being the first one to operationally define and measure the construct almost twenty years ago. She has been recognized as one of the world's most influential research psychologists.

Since 2005, Russ has run over 800 two-day workshops and provided ACT training for 80,000 health professionals. He has authored four ACT textbooks (ACT Made Simple, Trauma Focused ACT, Getting Unstuck in ACT, ACT Questions & Answers), and four ACT-based self-help books (The Happiness Trap, The Reality Slap, The Confidence Gap and ACT with Love). In addition, he has co-authored two other self-help books: The Weight Escape and The Happiness Trap Pocketbook. His best-known book, The Happiness Trap, has sold over one million copies worldwide, with translations into more than 30 languages.

The purpose of the FSHS is to provide student health services, as stipulated in the Health Care Act, for those studying for a Bachelor’s or Master’s degree at a university or other institution of higher education.

What should you do when your studies are stalling and it feels like you can’t move forward? These instructions contain hints from study psychologists that may help you solve your problem.

Instructions and links to different guidance services, such as student services, guidance counsellors services, study planning and supervision and individual arrangements intended to support your studies.

This optional course aims to promote study-related well-being and studying. The aim is to increase the participants’ skills to identify elements related to their well-being and studying and to utilize various tools to support them.

The Kyky project was carried out during the years 2011 to 2014 in order to promote study ability and community. The starting point of the project was joint development with partner universities and their student unions. The material package Study Ability through Engagement offers information and inspiration for higher education communities to enhance study ability and study engagement.

..................................................................................................................................................................................................... Bibliography: Andrews, B. & Wilding, J.M. (2004). The relation of depression and anxiety to life- stress and

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Ella is a second year Changing Education student who is interested in lifelong learning, and mental health and well-being of students at different stages of education. She is currently working on her thesis on university students' well-being, psychological flexibility and organized study skills, on which this blog post is also based. She is also a research assistant on the WELLS research project at the Centre for University Pedagogy, HYPE, which aims to explore these themes and, based on research evidence, develop interventions to promote student well-being and lifelong learning.

Keywords: Psychological flexibility, ACT, study skills, mental health, well-being, students



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