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Counselor: Don't study too hard

If you don't give your brain rest and nourishment, it might fail you during your finals, a University of South Florida psychologist says.

By LINDA GIBSON

© St. Petersburg Times, published April 28, 2000


TAMPA -- Dr. Robert Parrino has some advice for those super-conscientious students who skimp on sleep and skip meals while cramming for final exams: Don't study so hard.

Knock off for a while. Go to a movie, take a nap, eat a decent meal without an open textbook on your lap.

His advice is especially directed at those students prone to test anxiety. Often, these are the hardest-working students, the ones who prepare thoroughly only to find their minds go blank when they have the test in front of them.

"It's a hidden epidemic in universities," said Parrino, a clinical psychologist at the University of South Florida's Counseling Center. "People don't talk about it, but there are bright, motivated students who perform less well than they're capable of because their intellects have completely short-circuited."

Parrish runs test-anxiety workshops at USF three times a year, usually two weeks before final exams.

In his private practice, he tackles the same problem among people about to take tests that will determine whether they can practice what they've been studying for years: doctors, lawyers, accountants, veterinarians.

Some of his clients are lawyers who flunked the bar exam several times before going to Parrino for help.

"The more anxious you are, the greater the number of errors," he said. "It has nothing to do with stupidity. I tell them, "You don't need 100 hours of study. Sixty will do. You'll get your work done more efficiently if you're rested.' "

The reason, he said, is that the brain uses down time, usually during sleep, to process information it absorbed during the day. People who cut back on sleep to spend more time studying make it hard for their brains to retain the knowledge they're working so hard to learn.

"What people tend to do in the final stretch is not get enough sleep, eat while studying, they don't work out, etc. The irony is that what they're doing is assaulting the machine they'll need to perform like an Olympian during the test," he said.

In his two-hour workshops, which are free to students, Parrino teaches a brief relaxation technique that involves deep breathing. "Your brain acts different when you're breathing fully than when you're breathing shallow," he said.

Then he talks about cleaning one's thinking of negative self-talk. "What you say to yourself determines how you feel," he said.

Next, Parrino tackles what he calls environmental engineering. This is when he emphasizes the importance of adequate sleep, good meals and time away from studying.

His last piece of advice is the one most often ignored: Get up out of one's chair and move around. Walk, swim, bike, anything.

"The more you sit in that chair, the more tension builds up, and an inability to focus," he said.

- Linda Gibson can be reached at (813) 226-3382 or at gibson@sptimes.com.

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