How to Deal with Exam Stress

You may or may not know the famous 70s disco hit that used this phrase, but when it comes to exams, “Freaking Out” is possible for any of us, some of us can deal with it and some think they can’t, but it can be controlled.

The science of this is established and well known. In short, as your body incurs stress, your heartbeat tends to rise. As your heartbeat rises, your mental and physical functionality decreases. If your heart beat spikes suddenly, you will have the standard symptoms associated with a panic attack. Your cognitive processing completely breaks down, and you can have a “freezing up” sensation in which you have trouble taking any action.

The symptoms include the face starting to become flushed, then feeling a cold sweat. Your mind starts to race, you lose concentration, develop tunnel vision and your heart feels like it wants to explode. You start the exam or mid-way through the exam you draw a blank, after initially reading the question, for some reason, you don’t have any clue how to answer it. The “Freak Out” has begun. Perhaps you start thinking, “I’m not ready for this exam, I have no clue and I am running out of time.”

What can you do if this happens to you in an exam?

What I recommend to you is quite simple: BREATHE. If you are under stress and begin to experience a heart rate surge, if you can get control of your breathing, you can stop an anxiety attack. Begin to take long deliberate breaths by paying attention to your breathing, breathing slowly, deeply and purposefully into your body. The body reacts by stopping the climb of the heart rate, and begins to slow your heart rate down. Take a series of deep breaths and it will turn your heart rate back in the right direction. Your mind racing, your tunnel vision, your functionality; it will all return to normal.

Oxygenation of the brain reduces excessive anxiety levels. As you relax your body, you may find that the breathing brings clarity and insights to you as well, thus becoming able to refocus.

The key idea is that if you get into a panic, you need to do something to totally jog yourself out of the mind-frame you are in and then breathe your way to resetting your emotional state. Tell yourself: “Right, deep breaths. I am totally settled now, let’s get to it!” Then re-join the exam and perform like you have prepared for.

But how can you practice breathing and controlling your emotions before the exam in order to both improve your study technique and beat the “Freak Out” while in the exam?

Mindfulness/ Meditation

A lot of people start mindfulness and meditation for its benefits in stress reduction and anxiety, and there’s lots of good evidence to support this rationale. Research on the neural/ brain perspective of how mindfulness meditation works suggests that it helps in attention regulation, body awareness and emotional regulation.

One of the central benefits of meditation is that it improves attention and concentration. In just a couple of weeks it can help people’s focus and memory and it’s not so surprising that it helps people’s cognitive skills too.

Mindfulness meditation is practiced sitting with eyes closed, on a chair, with the back straight. Attention is put on the movement of the abdomen when breathing in and out, or on the awareness of the breath as it goes in and out the nostrils. If you becomes distracted from the breath, simply passively notice that your mind has wandered, but in an accepting, non-judgmental way and then return to focusing on your breathing.

How to Breathe properly?

  1. Inhale through your nose, expanding your belly, then fill your chest counting to 5.
  2. Hold and count to 3.
  3. Exhale fully, counting to 5.

You can start with short periods of 10 minutes or so per day, especially before periods of intense study. As you practice regularly, it becomes easier to keep the attention focused on breathing.

There are specific mindfulness meditation apps that can be downloaded to assist you too!

So, what do you do the next time you “Freak Out”?

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