Imagine that you have been dropped into a remote area of a deep and wild jungle. The darkness sets in, and with it comes the chill of the night air. Your senses are heightened – every snap of a twig sounds like the boom of a drum; every smell is strong and over-powering. Your heart is pumping, your body shaking slightly with the cold and the fear. And your hands are clammy. Suddenly, you hear movement behind you. Your brain stops. Out of the corner of your eye, you see the flick of a striped tail and a huge pair of amber eyes. Your stomach lurches, your heart jumps, and you set off running like a mad person! You’re out-running a tiger.
This might seem like a strange way to start a blog post on exam stress, but there’s a very simple reason why:
Your body can’t tell the difference between a tiger and an exam.
Your body only gets one signal: “fear.” It’s the same for tigers and exams! When that fear signal arrives, this is what happens:
The brain sends a message to your kidneys to produce adrenalin. Adrenalin will make your heart pump faster to get more oxygen to the blood and muscles, giving you the energy you need to fight a tiger. However, it’s not so great when you are so wired on anxiety that can’t get to sleep on exam night.
Your body diverts blood to your brain and your stomach. This is to make you think quicker, and to try and get rid of half processed food so you’re not wasting your tiger fighting energy on digesting your dinner! However, this is the worst when you feel light headed and dizzy, and you can’t get off the bathroom floor because your stomach is so upset!
Your body gets the message to sweat more. Handy really, if you’re going to be all hot and bothered from fighting the tiger, but very unhelpful when your hands are so sweaty you can’t hold your pen!
It’s not your body’s fault – it’s just responding in the way it’s been trained to respond to fear! The problem is, your body doesn’t know that exams are nothing to be afraid of. That’s something we have to teach it. Here are some handy steps to help us calm down:
1. I’m already panicking! What can I do??
When you’ve started to panic it can feel like it will never end, but it’s not biologically true! A panic attack peaks at about ten minutes and then will start to decline. Sometimes it can be helpful to tell yourself over and over that it can’t last forever.
2. I’m trying that, but I feel like I can’t breathe!
Trouble breathing is one of the most unnerving things about a panic attack. The trick is to try and adjust your breathing so that you are breathing more slowly. Try counting inside your head to measure your breathing. Breathe in for 4, try and hold it for 5, and breathe out slowly for 6. This can also be really helpful if you are trying to get to sleep too!
3. I’m calmer now, but whenever I think about my exams I feel sick!
Sometimes our fear comes from not being properly prepared. This can lower our confidence and make us more likely to stress. So even though it seems stressful at first, don’t ignore your exams and your revision, because putting it off will just reinforce your feeling of fear, and make everything worse. Listen to your teachers, make a revision timetable, and start to chip away at that revision. It will make the exams less scary over-all.
4. I’ve been revising loads – but as soon as I get into the exam room, I lose it!
Even the most prepared students can feel panic when they get into the exam room. Try a few calming techniques to help you manage your stress: make sure you take a bottle of water, and you have all your relevant equipment. When you sit in your seat, try clearing your mind rather than running over your revision. Instead, think some self-affirmations like: “I am strong and capable,” or “My worth isn’t measured by exams.” When you’re asked to turn over the paper, take a deep breath to steady yourself. Then slowly read the questions. Take your time!
5. I just can’t do it. When I’m in the exam I feel like I’m going to faint or be sick!
Remember that you can take a break, and the exam invigilators are there to help you. If you feel unwell, then put your hand up and explain to them what’s going on – they’ll know what to do! If your panic is blinding you and you’re really struggling then don’t suffer in silence. Speak up! It’s much better you take a break and come back to the exam refreshed than spend the whole duration sitting in panic.
Never forget that panic passes, and you can cope with any fear as long as you have the tools to do so!
You can do it!