One observation that I would say is universally true is that self-care is critical for successful learning.
A healthy mind (and body) is a mind ready to learn.
Self-care means taking an active role in preserving and protecting your well-being, and it is especially important during times of stress and change.
What is self-care?
Self-care is any activity or practice done deliberately to nurture your emotional, mental, and physical health.
While self-care is a rather broad topic, in this module we will highlight self-care techniques that support your ability to learn.
Stress can have a significant impact on learning, particularly on memory. While stress can improve attention and alertness and thus help with memory formation (encoding), too much stress can impair our cognitive function by negatively impacting our brain’s ability to retrieve information or update existing information. Retrieval of information is critical during exams of course but is also important when we need to recall and put into action newly acquired skills. Our ability to update existing information is important when learning complex concepts that build or change over time. Learning to manage stress in turn helps our brain to learn.
A Quick Pause to Breathe
Before we continue, let’s pause here for a very basic technique to help you get grounded – belly breathing also referred to as diaphragmatic breathing. At any point when you need to calm and refocus your thoughts and emotions, practicing this breathing exercise will help settle and center your mind.
Make a note of how you feel at this moment; jot down a few words. Practice the technique below a few times and then make a note of how you feel after. What differences are you noticing? Did you find this helpful?
Belly Breathing steps:
- Lay down or sit comfortably.
- Put one hand on your belly just below your ribs and place your other hand on your chest.
- Take a deep breath in through your nostrils, letting your belly push your hand out. Try to do this without raising your chest.
- Breathe out through slightly parted lips, and feel your belly hand drop. Use your hand to gently push the air out.
- Repeat for 3 to 10 cycles, taking at least 10 seconds for each breath.
The Role of Memory in Learning
Learning and memory are two sides of the same coin. Learning refers to the process of acquiring new skills or knowledge. Memory is the expression of what you have learned. For example, consider the effort it takes for a child to learn how to tie their shoe. They need to watch the movement and listen to instruction from someone who knows how to tie a shoe. The child must also practice many times, going through each step, feeling the movement of the laces and coordinations of their fingers. This effort is learning. Eventually, the child can recall the steps without being shown or told, and finally tie their shoe quickly from memory.
And when you forget something, you have to relearn it, encoding the skill or knowledge again to memory.
An active and awake brain is necessary for encoding new memories, such as learning new concepts and skills. But during sleep, our brain is also actively consolidating our memories. According to the book, Learning and Memory: A Comprehensive Reference, memory consolidation is the process by which recently learned experiences are transformed into long-term memory. During sleep, our brain takes advantage of less awake-time activity to make the structural and chemical changes in the nervous system needed for long-term memory.
Sleep and Memory
What is your sleep number?
While everyone’s sleep number – the hours of sleep you need each night – can vary, according to the US National Sleep Foundation, adults between the ages of 18 and 64 should get between 7 and 9 hours of uninterrupted sleep.
Keep regular bedtimes and wake up times, even on the weekends.
- Plan time to wind down before bedtime. Minimize exposure to blue light from devices like your phone or laptop.
- Your sleep environment should be cool, free from disturbing noises, and any light. You might want to use things like blackout curtains, an eye mask, earplugs, and a white noise machine (or another appliance like a fan or humidifier to mask noise).
- Avoid alcohol, cigarettes, caffeine, and heavy meals in the evening.
- Anything related to work and entertainment (computers, TVs, etc) should be removed from the bedroom.
Take a Short Nap
If your energy and ability to concentrate starts to wane, why not take a nap? Much like sleep, brief naps not only aid with memory consolidation but can also be restorative. Sleep research has demonstrated that cognitive function – critical for learning – is improved after a nap. Napping also helps with problem-solving, short-term memory, and alertness.
The ideal nap time is 10 to 20 minutes. Anything less than 10 minutes does not provide the restorative effects to your brain, and longer than 25 minutes can make you feel drowsy and cloud your ability to think clearly.
In order for you to be fully available to your family, friends, and coworkers, you need to put your well-being first. This means maintaining healthy habits like getting enough sleep, staying hydrated and eating well, getting regular physical exercise, and taking breaks. You might explore wellness apps that can help you create and manage healthy habits.
It can be difficult to give ourselves the timeout we need as the pace and demands of the day push us forward. To help you take a moment for yourself, consider scheduling your breaks. Later in this course, we will cover time management strategies and setting a study schedule. Add breaks directly to your study schedule and honor that time as you would an appointment with a doctor or meeting with a friend.
Ideas for Quick Breaks
- Sunlight and fresh air. This can go hand-in-hand with getting some exercise or walking your dog.
- Meditation, yoga, and breathing exercises.
- Connecting with friends and family.