Studying through depression?
January 3, 2010 2:42 PM   Subscribe

How can I concentrate on studying for exams while I'm dealing with depression?

I have (university) exams starting later this month, and I really need to do well in them. I've been really struggling to get started properly with studying, and focussing in general. I've got depression, and am finally being treated, though still trying out different medications and dosages, so I'm not feeling very stable at the moment (currently on 40mg daily of fluoxetine). I've seen a counsellor a couple of times, but won't be able to again until the end of the month.

I'm staying with my parents for a couple of weeks in a bid to get more studying done, but I've been finding it really hard to deal with it. I haven't told my parents about my depression. I thought it would help to stay here for a while, because while I'm here I don't have to worry about cooking and cleaning so much, and I thought I'd eat better too - I've not had much appetite lately.

I'm finding it hard to get through my anxiety and get to work - it seems like such a big job, and I can't reason my way through it. I don't even know where to start on planning my study time, or how much I should consider doing a day.

I have five exams to study for, all in physics.

Can anyone give me some tips or advice on studying effectively, or how to cope with my depression in the short term while I get through the exams?
posted by anonymous to Education (10 answers total) 19 users marked this as a favorite
I went through a nasty divorce while in a Master's program. The two things that helped me were:

--I scheduled every single minute of my waking hours. The structure really helped me get through the day. I didn't have time to stop and think. You don't know where to start? Start with
2) Exercise. I know it's a cliche but it was incredibly helpful with everything - it helped give my brain a break to process what i'd just crammed into it, it helped me sleep better & more soundly, it made me less snacky. Also, I used to schedule it for 9pm, which is when my flatmates all sat down to watch a program, and the whole "i have to leave the house to go to the gym" absolutely removed any temptation to get sucked into watching it, prevented the flatmates from trying to coax me into watching it, etc.

In terms of a schedule, if you don't know where to start, Google "pomodoro technique". that helps me a lot now focus when i don't want to focus or have monkey mind.
posted by micawber at 2:59 PM on January 3, 2010 [1 favorite]

Do you have classmates you like who can help? Are there tutors available at your university, either through the university itself or to hire? I think the biggest thing that happens to me when I'm depressed is that I isolate, and having another human being helping you with this specifically might help to take away some of the anxiety.
posted by xingcat at 2:59 PM on January 3, 2010

Been there, but the fluoxetine didn't happen til later, and that was only for the duration of one extended release capsule, which made me very unhappy.

Obviously what worked for me might not work for you, but: I found that revision in a Pizza Hut that played insanely loud bad pop music was good for me somehow. I'd take the kid and my books and her books, we'd eat and read, then shift the plates and I'd just copy my notes (at paragraph-sized chunks, trying to increase the amount of stuff I held in my memory between reading and writing each time) - over and over and over and over. Not lecture notes, revision notes - whatever I felt I really had to have cold, prepared before setting off for the Pizza Hut. And hand copying repeatedly seems to be the best way to get things to stick in my head. I actually sketched out answers to some potential exam essays (based on what we'd covered in the course and past papers) and then copied them over and over so I'd have some chance of not having to think too much in essay-based exams.

Free refills on drinks and a very understanding waitstaff helped. We usually stayed for at least four hours. For some reason, the hellish pounding music helped. My guess is that it's sort of like the theory that babies sleep in the car in a sensory overload self defense move - it's like it distracted the very agitated and anxious part of my mind so that I could get busy. I knew I wouldn't be interrupted and there was nothing else there that I might do, no tempting distractions. And the revision itself was very mechanical - I didn't need to think much, just memorize. A lot. If any thinking had to happen, that was at home, ideally pacing while fiddling with/throwing whatever came to hand. Any real writing (like essays) took place thusly: a mug of port to stop the weeping; a mug of coffee to stop the sleeping; an hour alone in my room with the door shut catching up on all the missed weeping (while screaming that I couldn't do this, it was all too much, it was pointless and I would fail)... repeat as long as necessary.

It's hard. You can do it. Memail me if you want to chat or whatever. You're not alone.

sorry if this wasn't helpful, but my intentions are good. hope you're as ok as can be expected.
posted by magdalenstreetladies at 3:11 PM on January 3, 2010 [1 favorite]

Julie Fast's Get It Done When You're Depressed (reviews) is a concise collection of realistic strategies for people in your situation (it's not an uncommon one at that). The intention is not on treating depression, rather it is intended to increase your productivity while you are suffering from depression.

Learning to expect brain chatter, training yourself to focus, and breaking down your studying into smaller, more manageable pieces are recommended chapters (they're not really chapters, they're just a few pages each). Oh, and beware caffeine and sugar dependancy.

My public library catalogue carries several copies, so you might be able to check it out prior to purchasing it (it's also readily available in bookstores). Since you don't have much time, perhaps you'd be best served with the ebook format available from Penguin.

Good luck!
posted by Cody's Keeper at 3:20 PM on January 3, 2010 [3 favorites]

Seconding the Julie Fast book. I thought it was excellent.
posted by oldtimey at 3:27 PM on January 3, 2010

One thing to keep in mind is that even people who aren't depressed find this kind of thing daunting and potentially overwhelming.

My advice is to not spend anymore time thinking about the planning phase. Looking at a task like this when you're depressed is like trying to imagine moving a mountain. I think it helps to not look at the big picture and not make big plans (e.g., I'm going to spend ten hours a day studying). Perfection is the enemy here, along with the inertia of depression.

I would suggest numbering the books (or however the work is divided up) one through five and spend fifteen minutes on each one, looking at it and figuring out what needs to be done. I'd create a page for each book and write down a list of small things you can do to get started on each one.

Then I would start working through the lists. If you're having trouble concentrating, I'd do the first thing on each list and then cycle back through, maybe walking around the block after each cycle.

However you do it, my main advice is to get started, no matter how feable the attempt feels. Good luck. I know how difficult depression can make things.

P.S. I don't know anything about your family, but it might help to talk with them, if they will be supportive. Depression can also be isloating which can make doing things that much more difficult.
posted by orsonet at 4:37 PM on January 3, 2010 [2 favorites]

Thanks for the recommendations for Julie Fast's book. I checked out on Amazon and just ordered two copies (one to keep and one to give away)
posted by metahawk at 5:29 PM on January 3, 2010

Your school likely has a disabled services center. It's not just for people in wheelchairs or who have dyslexia.

It may be possible for them to arrange a reasonable accommodation like pushing back deadlines for papers or taking some of the exams a bit later. If you've got multiple exams scheduled for the same day, imagine how much less stressed you'd feel if there were a full night of sleep between them.

Lest you think that making inquiries about eligibility and potential options is tantamount to asking for special favors: (a) you will not be offered any accommodation which would be disadvantageous to your peers to your peers anyway, so don't worry about them -- they're taken care of, (b) you are not currently on a level playing field with the rest of the class -- your sleep, concentration, reasoning, and other mental capacities are being compromised by an unmanaged medical condition. Until the depression gets under control, you are not working at full capacity, and comparisons between your work and theirs will inaccurately reflect your commitment and capabilities. Accommodation is about making sure the grade reflects the reality of who you are, rather than the undue influence of a debilitating health condition.
posted by nakedcodemonkey at 8:36 PM on January 3, 2010 [1 favorite]

Here's what I do/have done.

1. Study for 20 minutes.
2. 10 pushups OR 10 squats OR 10-20 situps.
3. Repeat.

I found it harder to concentrate for longer than 20 minutes, and the fatigue from depression used to make my mind wander.

The hard, intense, *regular* physical activity helped to keep my mind focussed.
posted by flutable at 10:06 PM on January 3, 2010

Ah, OP, you have my sincere sympathy, and you've sent a chill down my back as I remember getting through some miserable times in university myself. Hope you find something here that works for you.

I would recommend using a timer to work by. Study for fifteen, twenty minutes, and don't give up until the timer goes (choosing something with a nice alarm is less aggravating btw). Then, take a few minutes for a break if you need it - get yourself a drink, stretch, get up and move, whatever you like. Then do it again. After four or five consecutive work segments, take a longer break Dividing the work into little manageable segments of time will help you press on.

For dividing work up, well... I hope these physics classes are like my engineering classes, with a focus on assignments. Working through those again and seeing where you're really coming up rusty is a good way to see yourself making progress. After you get through a section, go back and do some more work on the areas that gave you trouble. Move on if you can't quite get it, remind yourself that this won't be what the entire exam's on and it's ok not to understand everything. And if you can manage to find old exams for these classes, even better. Rotate through your classes, giving more time to the ones that are a) sooner and/or b) stressing you out the most.

A bright side is that if they're all physics classes (like you say), the material learned in one class will likely help your understanding of the material in the other ones. Less learning to do already :)
posted by lizbunny at 11:18 PM on January 3, 2010 [1 favorite]

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