Exam stress

Exams can be a stressful time usually due to expectations and the fear of ‘not doing well enough’ or ‘failing’. We can’t hide the fact that we are under personal scrutiny with the hope of the right results. So what causes us to feel so uncomfortable in the run up to exams?

This comes down to the fight, flight, freeze response that we have our caveman ancestors to blame/thank. Back then, the danger of physical harm from wild animals or other humans lead to the development of the fight, flight, freeze response to keep ourselves safe when presented with a threat and very helpful it was too.

Jump forward to present day and we still have this response, which can be useful if you happen to (for instance) drop a knife or hot drink, you can move out of the way really quick or if you’ve just put baby to bed, you can sneak out of the room very quietly. However, where this response isn’t so useful is when it comes to exams. Exams are seen by us as a threat (fear of failure anyone?) and as such, trigger off the fight, flight, freeze response. This response does have some use as it can help to give some urgency to putting in revision time and help us to focus at that time too. Where it can really get in the way however, is when confronted with the exam paper or task and your mind goes blank! What? After all of that revising, how can our minds let us down at the vital moment?

Ok, let’s look at what is going on here. The way the fight, flight, freeze response works is that the brain perceives a threat (exam and fear of failure). This triggers off the release of adrenaline and cortisol. The heart starts beating faster and harder, breathing gets quicker and shallower, the blood in our bodies gets diverted to our limbs and so we can get hot, sweaty, shaky and also pins and needles in fingers and toes. The digestive system shuts down (hence the ‘butterflies’ in our tummies), we can get light-headed and our vision can change to more long distance. Phew! No wonder we feel so uncomfortable with all of this going on! As this is so uncomfortable we really want to run away, but obviously we can’t or we’ll miss the exam. So we get fidgety, restless, go to the toilet more often, pace around and also may get snappy or short tempered. This is because our bodies are being so energised, yet not able to calm things down. While this isn’t nice, the worst bit is that often our minds go blank. What’s happening here is that the ‘thinking’ part of our brain (the frontal cortex) shuts down and the survival part of our brain (the amygdala) takes over. This is great when we’re under genuine risk of harm, but no good whatsoever in exams.

So, how can we regain some control and re-engage the frontal cortex and actually get back to being able to think about the exam?

Ok, this is where you call upon your superpower of breathing. Yes, that’s it, breathing. When the body is in panic mode it doesn’t know what the situation is, only that it’s been told by the adrenaline/cortisol to ‘switch on’ survival mode. The way to calm this down is to get control of your breathing. By slowing down your breathing, your heart will begin to slow and your brain will recognise that there is no great threat. It can switch the frontal cortex back on and help you to get thinking again. So, to control your breathing, you need to slow it down.

Breathe in for a count of four, hold for a couple of seconds, breathe out for a count of six and hold again for a couple of seconds and repeat nice and rhythmically until you feel calmer. Basically, you are breathing out more than you are breathing in. This won’t stop the fight, flight, freeze response completely, but will make it more comfortable. The response itself will probably come to an end sometime during the exam when you realise that things are going well and you probably won’t even notice that you are back to normal. However, should you notice that the exam isn’t going well, the body response may start up again which makes the situation even worse, so take a couple of minutes and focus on your breathing again.

Another way of managing the response is acceptance. Acceptance that it’s OK to feel uncomfortable during this period, even when revising. Using the breathing and taking some time out during revision will help too. We don’t feel comfortable when we are not in control, so planning revision times, what you’re going to do and also making sure you have all of the relevant information will make life easier.

Try and stay off drinking too much caffeine too, the recommended daily amount for adults is 300mg. Filter coffee is about 140mg per cup, strong tea about 70mg, small can of energy drink about 80mg, so it doesn’t take much to have too much caffeine and for some people this leads to headaches or feeling ‘jittery’. Getting enough sleep is also important. Look at your evening routine. If you’ve planned your day well enough hopefully you won’t be revising late at night. Leave at least an hour’s gap between finishing revising and also using any screen devices and going to sleep, the brain needs time to wind down. In that time, instead try and do something to relax that isn’t mentally taxing as the brain can only take on board a certain amount of information and make sense of it.

With these methods you should be able to do the best you can, also consider that while it’s great to pass the exams (of course we all want to do that) should you not pass, there will most likely be re-sits. Again if you don’t get the results you want, it’s not the end of the world, life may take a different path, but is that so bad?

The views expressed in this article are those of the author. All articles published on Counselling Directory are reviewed by our editorial team.

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Dunmow CM6 & Harlow CM18
Written by Mind in West Essex
Dunmow CM6 & Harlow CM18

Mike Ellen
Life Management Skills Manager
BABCP member

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