By Dr Nihara Krause, Consultant Clinical Psychologist, Founder and CEO stem4
Winston Churchill is quoted as saying, ‘If you are going through hell, keep going’ – a good depiction of the tenacity and determination he so clearly demonstrated for success. Many schools and universities are witness to the negative anticipation of exams and how they affect students. However, exam stress is not all bad and can be dealt with effectively.
Learning how to make the best use of stress can be very helpful in exams. We have become a society fearful of stress because of the many negative examples of the effects of chronic stress. However, stress is an essential component of good performance. ‘Eustress’ or good stress enables us to achieve our peak performance. When we are under stress, our brain gets sharper and concentration is boosted. Stress helps us to push ourselves forward and by doing so enhances self-belief and effectiveness. This is also why it’s important to pace yourself and to have breaks because too much stress creates a cortisol build-up, which keeps your body in a sustained state of threat, which is experienced as anxiety.
Anxiety is caused and maintained by fear-based perceptions and subsequent behaviours. Change feeling daunted to being challenged. Substitute the word ‘overwhelmed’ to ‘excited’ and note how a ‘conquering mind-set’ helps you feel in charge. You can also reduce adrenalin levels through exercise or by regulating your breathing which will contribute to lower levels of adrenalin and through this reduce your physiological reaction to stress. Most importantly, anxious behaviours need to be challenged by ‘feeling the fear, but doing it anyway.’ Having a ‘work-life’ balance is never more important than when studying for exams. Over the revision period, work will need to be given priority but make the ‘life’ bit fun and enjoyable, even if smaller than usual.
Dr Krause’s exam tips
1. Repetition is an essential part of learning. Studies on neural plasticity show that repetition can also help your brain rewire itself so that your thinking becomes stronger.
2. Learn the difference between a growth mindset and a fixed mindset. Fixed mindsets assume that intelligence and creative ability are a given and there’s nothing that you can do to change it. Growth mindsets thrive on challenge and see failure as a springboard for growth.
3. When motivation is a problem, write down your goals. Set a date and time and make the fact that you’re getting started public, then force yourself to do at least 30 minutes of study. To keep focused walk around as you study.
4. Prevent distractions – keep all technology out of reach.
5. Have regular breaks when you study – not too long that you lose the momentum and not too short that you don’t benefit. 7 minutes at the end of every hour works for most.
6. The day before the exam aim to run through your work and complete it by 3pm. Do something that relaxes you the night before. Decide whether it’s a good idea or not to speak to friends – last-minute comparisons are not very helpful. Go to bed at a reasonable time – not too early so you toss and turn but not too late.