Tip #93: Overcome your exam fears using STEMPSVF (a very shaky acronym with good results).
The why: Exams are the most stressful time of year for students. Its the culmination of a year of hard work, dedicated studying and Netflix.
For people who have anxiety, and even for those who don’t, the pressures of the months of May and June can prove to be an incredibly difficult mental period.
Some believe that stress is a good motivator, but actually stress and panic can have debilitating effects on exam performance and exam preparation.
When your mind is in pure freak-out mode, it makes it incredibly hard to concentrate and focus on the task at hand.
Your brain running at one hundred miles per hour could sound like a good thing, all those neurones firing on all cylinders, thoughts and ideas rushing around in there.
Alas it usually means that your mind is indeed working quickly, but bouncing around thoughts and ideas like “I don’t know anything!”, “I can’t do this”, “If I fail I’m going to have to move country and begin a new life amongst the trees.”
Plus, we’ve all been there. It’s the day of the exam and you’re standing outside the hall, chest heaving, palms sweating, heart feeling like it’s doing the cha cha in your rib cage in full on anxiety mode. The panic attack inhibits the memory and concentration centres of your brain, making it feel as though everything you’ve learned has mysteriously gone missing. It’s horrible.
Stress is seen as an inevitable part of this time in our academic careers – but it doesn’t have to be.
Exams, dare I say it, can actually be fun.
Number One – Be Social
Be social? Really? During exam time surely you should be hunkering down, building a book bunker and not leaving your room?
I am giving you permission, nay, insisting that you go out and play.
This is because going out with friends to do fun, sober activities is crucial for destressing, rather than distressing. Hitting up a bowling alley, sitting in a park talking, watching a movie or even doing something creative to engage different parts of your brain, releases dopamine and the happy hormones to keep your stress levels balanced.
Your brain needs a break and a rest, even whilst revising, in order to be able to function at full capacity. Like giving your brain a warm bubble bath and letting it relax so it can have the energy to keep on working hard.
Also, it is very easy to become solely focused on your exams, which may sound like a good thing, but really puts unnecessary pressures on your mind, making it hard to see the brilliant world outside of your notes and stresses. Hanging out with friends reminds you that there is more to life, and even if one exam doesn’t go so well, you have plenty of other good things going on.
Number Two – Make A Time Table
When you’re in full revision mode, it can be very hard to keep track of everything you’re learning.
In an anxious fit of “I don’t know anything”, you begin to try to switch quickly between subjects in a rather hectic and confusing way.
Your brain can’t keep up! Are we learning about 16th Century Tudor England, or Quantum Mechanics right now?
Switching from subject to topic with no organisation makes it harder for your brain to compartmentalise and remember the information you’re putting into it. This means that the disorganisation of your revision manifests itself in disorganisation of your thoughts, making you panic even more.
So, print out or draw out a daily timetable, breaking it up into 50-minute blocks. Then, write in each topic you’re going to do for a 50-minute period, with a ten-minute break at the end of each block.
This will allow you to keep track of what you know, and also allow you to focus on the things that you don’t know so well.
Seeing your timetable organised in such a way will give you structure, so you don’t spend time flicking between various things without purpose and wasting your energy.
If you’re having trouble getting started, which is often the issue, say to yourself “I will work for five minutes, then stop if I want to.” This is a great way to trick your brain into working rather than procrastinating, as five minutes seems like a far more manageable chunk of time.
Usually, once you start you’ll realise that in fact you can do it, and so will continue.
Number Three – Exercise
“Oh no. Come on. First you make me revise and now exercise?” – I hear you exclaim.
I know, dear reader, I’m the worst, but hear me out.
Exercise is a stress busting, mood boosting, happy hormone releasing, mind clearing, energy giving, one stop anxiety busting shop!
Even if you just go for a 20 minute light jog during the day, or in the morning, it has a myriad of benefits as shown above!
Running has even been proven to improve your cognitive abilities, meaning that you think clearer, and have increased brain capacity. Perfect for exams!
Exercise also releases the much loved happy hormones, that reduce stress, give you energy, and boost your mood! Again, perfect for exams!
Give it a go!
Number Four – Have A Mantra
I know it feels like if you fail an exam, it is literally the end of your hopes, dreams, successes and path to greatness, but trust me, it really, really isn’t.
An exam is just, well, an exam.
It is one, rather bad if you ask me, method of testing your abilities and knowledge. But certainly does not mean that if you don’t get the grade you hoped for that you are in any way a failure, stupid or won’t succeed.
Sometimes, in truth, we just have a bad day. We can go in there, know all the things we are supposed to know, and still not do as well as we imagined.
Sometimes the questions can be bad, sometimes we just draw a blank, sometimes the room is too hot and we are too tired. A whole bunch of things can inhibit us from doing our best, so it’s important to recognise that in the grand scheme of your identity and your life, this one exam isn’t going to hold you back.
Of course, exams are important and you should try your best and work your hardest, but the fear of failing can cause serious pressure and anxiety which makes us more likely to, you guessed it, fail!
Therefore, having a mantra that mitigates the fear of failure is important in reducing your stress and worry about your exams.
So, repeat this mantra after me:
“I am a smart, capable individual, and a bad grade is not reflective of my abilities. It will not stop me from achieving my dreams and goals. Nothing can stop me.”
Number Five – Get Pumped!
You may be thinking, how could one possibly become excited and pumped up for an exam?
Well, actually pretty easily according to science.
This is because that panic attack you have before the exam is caused by your autonomic system going into flight mode. Your Amygdala, the problem finding centre of your brain, senses incredible danger from the pieces of paper on your desk and so releases the hounds. Adrenaline rushes around your body is causing your distressing mental and physical symptoms with nowhere to go, nowhere to run.
So, instead of flight mode, go into fight mode.
Do some star jumps, say “BRING IT ON” in a mirror, flex and tense your muscles like you’re getting ready for a fight, in your head be your own best hype man, get geared up and excited to go in there and show this exam who’s the boss!
This will give the adrenaline some release and cause your body’s response to change from one of anxiety, to one of being ready and fired up!
Number Six – Self Care
When we’re in revision mode, we often forget to eat, sleep, and drink enough water.
This means that we are constantly underperforming, running on empty, and not giving our brains and bodies the stuff they need to ensure we succeed.
We’ll be low energy, low mood and even more anxious. This is because without the basics, our brains don’t have the energy to fight off our anxious thoughts and feelings, meaning we are more susceptible to the symptoms of panic.
Therefore, it’s super important to make sure you take time out of your day to take care of these basic requirements. Even if you have set reminders at certain times every day that tell you to eat and drink.
If you need any ideas – here’s a list I made of 60 self-care tips to choose from!
Trust me, you’ll feel way better for it.
Number Seven – Visualise
This one is quite an easy one to do.
During the days before your exam, imagine yourself walking into the room and sitting down without panicking.
This sounds quite strange, but bear with me for a moment.
Visualising the exact route you’ll take to the exam hall, and visualising the actual action of walking into the room and sitting down to take the test will mean then when it actually happens, your brain will be prepared.
It will think “ah, I’ve done this before” and so won’t panic as much, as it’s a familiar setting and experience.
Plus, if you visualise yourself calm during this, then when your brain sees the same situation happening in real life, it will know that it should feel calm, and that there is nothing to worry about.
So, take a few minutes out of your day, every day, to visualise the moment, and feel at peace.
Number Eight – Have Fun
Okay, I get it. I sound even crazier than usual.
How could exams possibly be fun?
Well, maybe they are, maybe they aren’t, but whatever it ends up being depends entirely on your mindset towards it.
For instance, I sat my politics exam on Tuesday, and for the few days before tried out a new trick: telling myself that I was really looking forward to going in there, and having a good old fashioned debate.
“It’s going to be fun!” I said. “You’ll really enjoy yourself” I said. “It’s going to be amazing” I said.
And you know what? Apart from the bad questions, it kind of was!
Because I had a positive mindset towards the exam, and saw it as an opportunity to state my opinions and have an interesting conversation (with myself admittedly), I didn’t feel so stressed about it.
So, to beat exam stress, remember, STEMPSVF.
Social, time table, exercise, mantra, pumped, self-care, visualise, fun.
See, super easy to remember! (Sarcasm).
But honestly dear reader, good luck, you’re going to be great, and I have every faith in you.