We are now in touching distance of exam season which for so many adults is full of indelible scars from their own childhood where year after year, regimes of examinations were prevalent at this time of the year which were often about sitting in oppressive, soulless and sterile halls with the pressure to perform in that period of time only compounded by the ticking clock and the austere look of the invigilator. For many of us, we underperformed in these conditions and carried these anxieties forwards to interviews, auditions, and other tests in our adult life. And of course we inevitably and inadvertently will often transmit our own anxieties onto our children.
Exam anxiety is the excessive worry about upcoming exams, the fear of being evaluated and judged, and the apprehension about the consequences of the performance. These normal reactions are experienced by many students.
Lifestyle issues – not sleeping or resting sufficiently or long enough, poor nutrition, insufficient amounts of exercise and the intake of too many stimulants such as caffeinated drinks and chocolate.
Information needs – ensuring you have the right information you need for your study and exam. This ‘information’ also includes the techniques or strategies that you may need to use to help yourself both before and during the exam (e.g. anxiety reduction).
Poor studying styles – inefficient strategies such as binge-studying, studying all night, reading without understanding, or even not revising, will be detrimental towards performance, whilst there are evidenced ways of planning, making notes and focusing in chunks on the content of the syllabus.
Psychological factors – perhaps, the largest ingredients are the psychological ones which can allow us to perform to our potential. We will all struggle at times to contain the demons from anxiety which may include negative thinking, the critical self, the belief we have no control over the exam situation or even rrational or catastrophic belief systems in relation to the exam.
It is possible to manage both the mental preparation and actual performance in the exam and this is achievable and can be learnt with self discipline and sensible guidance.
Let’s think first about how to prepare for exams. First, there’s the physical restoration.
A) Get your Breathing right – perhaps the best way to start this is by slowing your breathing down and taking regular, gentle and deep breaths. I advocate teaching yourself or your child such methods of counting to four on the in breath, holding for three seconds, exhale and let your head, jaw and shoulders drop, breathing into your neck, jaw, shoulders and the rest of your body. This cycle can be repeated both in preparation and during an examination.
B) Releasing (can be done lying down or sitting) – tense all the muscle groups one by one, focusing on those more taut areas, and repeatedly tighten these individually, hold for five seconds and then let your breath and then the tension in your body go all at one and feel the tension leaving the body.
C) Special or safe place (useful in the exam) – I like to see this as a sanctuary that you can imagine yourself in which could be a safe, relaxing and comforting place that you can reach whenever you need a break, again either before or during the exam. Many people use beach or natural scenes as their multisensory experiental places to visit.
D) Physiology reboot – focus on posture being relaxed and not slumped, holding your head high, smiling and flexing muscles ro remain mobile and fluid.
Then, there’s the mental restoration.
A) Imagine it going well – repeatedly ‘fake it’ but imagine the scene of the exam and you’re calm, in control and confident from start to finish. If you’re preparing or studying, visualize yourself taking the exam in in a relaxed alert state. If you do this repeatedly, you are helping recalibrate something threatening as being okay and safe.
C Re frame
We may need to help to change perspectives and do a refreshing so that the situation is thought about in a more useful and softer way. It may be worth reaming the experience of the exam as being an opportunity to demonstrate your learning and sills, but it is not a life or death situation, and there are always more important things. Maybe do some CBT on yourself and if it helps and applies, ask yourself how many tests you have previously done, how many you have passed, so you can become more reality focused. >
Try accepting the anxiety and fear, and not being too hard on yourself. It is a normal and common reaction and one which many peers or contemporaries will be going through right now. Recall times you have succeeded and try not to be too harsh.
E) Seek help.
Remember to not feel you are isolated and you can seek help whether with peers, teachers or experts, so that you don’t have to struggle with your topic. Of course, the seeking of help applies to psychological treatment too which may involve one or two counselling sessions to help you negotiate a tricky period.
We often need to pace ourselves so we don’t burn out and have other outlets and distractions.
In the actual exam, many of the above will apply in preparing yourself both mentally and physically.
Slow yourself down when you start so that you survey the room and start to feel in control of your environment. You will be able to read the instructions and questions rather than risk applying yourself in an unfocused way. Always do a plan thinking about time so you can help provide a structure for yourself. Many of us fail to do this as we feel it is a drain on time when actually it is not and will provide useful boundaries.
Rather like children, most of us react well to incentives so on the day of the exam, it may be helpful to have something to do or look forward to after the exam. Most people find the post-exam conversing challenging as you absorb a distorted amount of others’ feelings, whether this is delight or dismay. Try not to be self-critical and instead praise yourself for what you did. We all have a distorted perception of our own performance so it is fruitless to spend too long thinking about this.
In sum, believe in yourself, particularly if you have prepared yourself properly.
I offer therapy for those who are feeling anxious about tests or exams, and this may take a number of different forms including cognitive behavioural therapy CBT, hypnotherapy/mindfulness, and more conventional counselling. For exam season, if you book a block of 3, you pay for the price of 2.