Updated 30 October 2013

It's exam time!

Exams are around the corner. Are you prepared? Are you panicking? CyberShrink gives a few great tips on coping with examination stress.


Exams are around the corner. Are you prepared? Are you panicking? CyberShrink gives a few great tips on coping with examination stress.

Exams are one of the most stressful of experiences we routinely have to endure - especially when we're young. This is the first of two articles aimed at all those facing examinations in the next few weeks.

The issues mentioned here should also be useful to members of your family. And also to anyone else who is facing things such as job interviews, assessments at work, or any other public performance of any kind.

Here follow some practical tips:

Not all stress is bad. It is important to remember that a bit of stress can motivate us - the trick is to get the dose right. If you find exams to be relaxing, or pure pleasure, then you must be misunderstanding something! A modest amount of stress and anxiety can provide valuable stimulus that gets us to study and prepare, otherwise we might not bother to put in our best effort. Anxiety is normal. The exam results are important to you, and not entirely predictable - anyone can be anxious about that. But you don't need to become so anxious that you're crippled by fear. You need to control the anxiety, and not let it control you. You're the boss, even if it doesn't feel like it.

Lack of control is scary. We don't like being in situations where we can't entirely control what happens, especially when the result really matters to us. One important response is to decide to control what you can control, and not waste time getting worked up over the elements which you can't control.

Fearing anxiety. Above all, try to avoid getting anxious about getting anxious. Otherwise, you can set up a feedback loop. What's that? If a microphone accidentally points at a loudspeaker, small sounds get whipped back and forth, amplified each time, ending in an ear-splitting screech. In other words, don't make your own natural anxiety such a big deal that it frightens you.

Sometimes anxiety needs to be placed in quarantine when seriously anxious people get together; they can act as an amplifier and get jointly more frightened. If you have friends who get very anxious, wish them well, but don't spend time with them, as their anxiety can be infectious. If you are blessed with friends who take things calmly, time spent with them may help you cool off, too.

Stay away from stimulants. It's well known that many people think that the use of drugs - both legal and illegal, prescription or street - can help when coping with stress. They're actually likely to damage your chances of success even in the short term. Unless you have very specific kinds of stress problems, you should stay away from any of these. Just about the worst thing you can do is to take some medication to help you study through the night. 

Be well prepared. Prepare as well as you still can, plan for the exam. By doing these things, your confidence and competence will increase. Try and avoid that last-minute rush. However, now it might be 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 panicking about what you should have done, simply makes you panic. 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.

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.

Be positive. Try to 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.

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 fair amount 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 enough, and anything better than that is a nice bonus.

Create your own reality. 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.

Don't 'awfulise'. This means exaggerating 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.

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

(Picture: study stress from Shutterstock)


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