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12 March 2004

Coping with exam stress, part II

In the second of a series of three articles, psychiatrist Dr Michael Simpson, gives advice and tips on coping with examination stress.This article focuses on psychological coping methods.

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In the second of a series of three articles, psychiatrist Dr Michael Simpson, gives advice and tips on coping with examination stress.This article focuses on psychological coping methods.

"While you are studying, think like an examiner. As you read through the material, look out for things that would make a good question. Also, look for connections between the different things you are learning, both within and between different subjects."
Welcome back, and I hope your preparations are proceeding well. This week we're going to look at more psychological ways to cope with Exams.

Whether or not we like it, it's a fact that many of us will be taking some form of test or assessment for much of our lives, so we may as well get as good at the skill as we can. One of the best remedies is to be well prepared. You can't do all that is needed at the last minute. In future we will look at ways of planning your preparation so as to avoid that last-minute rush.

However, now its too late to start worrying about what you didn't do months ago - you can't go back in a Time Machine and do your preparation better, and sitting ruminating about what you "could have/should have" and didn't do, simply breeds panic.

While you can't change the past, you can change the present and the future, so concentrate on what you CAN do, rather than on bewailing what you can't.

How to prepare

Prepare as well as you still can, planning for the exam, and increasing your competence and confidence. Remember, this isn't a microscopic examination of your soul, and the results will reflect your performance during each particular exam - they're not assessing whether you're a good or bad, clever or stupid person. It's not about the real you, but about your level of performance in a particular situation.

1. While you are studying, think like an examiner. As you read through the material, look out for things that would make a good question. Also, look for connections between the different things you are learning, both within and between different subjects. We know that the more connections there are to each piece of information you are storing away, the easier it will be to find and recall them when you need them.

2. Be positive: Avoid negative thinking. Instead of arguing with yourself, in your inner voice, about how awful everything is and how you feel sure you'll fail (if you succeed in convincing yourself that you must fail, you probably will) rather strike up a positive dialogue.

3. Encourage yourself. Give yourself a good pep talk, like a football coach before the game. You're an intelligent person (no-one gets as far through the system as you already have, without being intelligent) and certainly intelligent enough to pass the test. You have studied and worked hard, you know a lot about each subject, and you should be able to remember enough to answer each question adequately. Your Nobel Prize can come later: for now, "adequately" is pretty darn good, and anything better than that is a nice bonus.

4. To a remarkable extent, how you choose to think about what is happening to you, influences what will happen. If you decide to be miserable, or a failure, you will be. If, on the other hand, you decide that you can be successful, and cheerful, you will manage that, equally. Avoid trapping yourself within a network of Absolute declarations you make to yourself.

5. Don't Musterbate or Awfulize. My old colleague Albert Ellis wisely warned against two types of unhelpful thinking - Musterbating, and Awfulizing. Musterbating happens when you make sweeping declarations : "I MUST pass this test, and I MUST get an A in every subject." (not necessarily) " I MUST be popular with everyone" (impossible and unnecessary) "I MUST be good at everything and MUST never make mistakes". (Pal, no-one is good at everything ( and they;d be a dreadful bore if they were ) and even Saints make mistakes. Just try to make new Mistakes, rather than just repeating the old ones.

6. Awfulizing is when you exaggerate the consequences of what might happen." It would be absolutely totally AWFUL if I failed, if I only got a C, if my friend doesn't call back tonight". Maybe it would be disappointing, annoying, inconvenient, many things: but it probably wouldn't manage to be as totally Awful as you expect.
7. Stay healthy, be moderate. There's another aspect of the sports analogy that's useful. Look after yourself and be kind to yourself. Only an idiot tries to run the Comrades by just turning up and starting to run when the gun goes off. The successful runners don't just prepare ( like your studying) but they take care to eat wisely, avoid unnecessary distractions and voluntary stresses (this is not a useful time to choose your future career, or to decide about a life-long committment to your current girl- or boy-friend.)

8. Exercise moderately, eat and rest wisely. treat yourself as a nice person who deserves to be looked after well.

Next, we'll look specifically at the dreaded Examination Day itself, and what to do during the Exams and afterwards, to look after yourself. - M.A. Simpson.

 
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