Are you preparing for exams? Are you feeling stressed? Maybe you’re supporting someone whilst they get ready for theirs, and you want to be able to help them feel less stressed. Here’s how to create a mind-set for success ready to approach exams with a cool, calm state of mind.
It can be nerve-racking taking an exam, mostly because of what’s at stake. You may be feeling stressed under the weight of expectation from your family, school or workplace to succeed. You may be afraid you’re not good enough, or haven’t worked hard enough, or fear that you’re not going to get into college or university or take that next step in your career. Exams also rarely exist in isolation. There may be other events or challenges going on in your life that require your attention too. Whatever your situation, it can certainly be a challenging time.
Everybody’s stress threshold is different. A situation that is too overwhelming for one person to tolerate may be positively stimulating for another. Managing stress at the right level can work to your advantage, as it can help you to produce your best performance.
If not it can lead to any number of stress related symptoms, including;
- feeling afraid and fearful
- loss of appetite
- increased tiredness
- low mood
- feeling tearful
- feeling anxious
- shortness of breath
- bad tempered
- upset stomach and digestive problems
Anxiety and stress can sometimes produce physical sensations as well, such as chest pain, muscle cramps, pins and needles, dizziness, and fainting. It is important to talk to someone about these feelings and to get appropriate help where necessary.
So how can you avoid experiencing symptoms of exam stress during the weeks and months leading up to them?
Preparing for an exam and successfully completing it isn’t just about how knowledgeable you are, it’s as much about your state of mind too. Feeling calm, relaxed, and confident whilst studying and preparing for the exam, as well as when you are sitting it, means you will be much more likely to achieve your full potential.
Accessing this state of mind is a skill, and can be learned by implementing new ways of thinking, along some simple strategies to establish a positive study routine.
It’s important to be organised
Find out exactly what you are facing; get hold of the right information from the very start, and make sure you know how you will be examined and what you’ll be examined on.
Take time to plan a study timetable that is both realistic and flexible for you. Factor in time to revise, but also time to relax, eat, sleep, and work, if that applies.
Try to start your revision in plenty of time, and identify when you are likely to be the most productive during the day or evening. This means you can plan in your relaxation time and other commitments.
Don’t abandon your social life, hobbies or sport just because you are studying for exams. Having time to relax and switch off is valuable.
Find the best way to revise
Try to find a space where you feel comfortable and can work without being disturbed. There’s no right or wrong way to revise, it’s largely a matter of what suits you.
Your method might be to make notes from text books, writing quick summaries of topics in the form of mind maps, or reciting facts out loud. It could be learning dates or text by heart, or practising timed exam papers.
Switching between methods can help you to absorb information better, and hold your interest. Try mixing uninspiring subjects with more interesting ones for the same reason, and if it’s hard to get started, begin with something less challenging.
Pace yourself, and if you find it hard getting motivated, set yourself measurable goals for each revision session. This way you can tick them off after each session, acknowledge your achievement and reward yourself.
What’s the best way to approach exams?
Be clear about what exam is coming up and when, so you don’t prepare for the wrong one. Having everything you need ready in advance of the exam will help to reduce any pre-exam nerves. Set off in good time, and have something to eat beforehand to fuel you and our brain.
Once in the exam, if you feel any tension building or your mind going blank, take a minute to do a short breathing routine (see below) and give yourself time to be calm and read the questions carefully.
After the exam is over, it’s tempting to think about all the answers you gave, instead focus your energy either on the next one, or rewarding yourself if you have come to the end.
How to relax
Learning how to relax the mind and body will be very helpful during your revision period and even when sitting in the exam room.
Feeling anxious and stressed can increase the heart rate and cause your breathing to become shallow and shorter too. If this happens, take a moment to focus on your breath. Place one hand on your stomach, and ground yourself with both feet on the floor. You may want to close your eyes, and visualise the tension disappearing. Take a deep slow breath in, as if you are filling up a balloon in your stomach. Then breathe out slowly, just like you are letting the air out again. Thinking of warmth, heaviness & relaxation carry on until you feel calm. This gentle breathing exercise can be done for 2 or 20 minutes, depending on your situation.
Exercise is an excellent way of coping with stress. As little as 10 or 20 minutes a day spent cycling, out walking, at the gym or in an exercise class, can make a noticeable difference.
Sleep if you are tired. Worries can escalate when you are feeling sleep deprived. If you’ve been finding it hard to get to sleep, try cutting down on stimulants such caffeinated drinks.
Find ways of connecting with others in a similar situation for support. Think about getting together in a study group, it may help with revision and give you an opportunity to talk to someone about something that is worrying you.
Eat well. It’s so important to eat properly, and not exist on snacks. The right foods can help boost your concentration, and support you to feel well generally.
What if things just get too much?
Try and get an accurate picture of your situation. Asking someone who knows your work and the standards required, might just help to put you at ease.
Getting your tutor or a mentor to help you organise your work realistically, and offer a fresh perspective can also be valuable. They can help you to prioritise your action list.
Take some time to make you a priority. Self-soothing can help you to relax and feel calmer. Think of things you have done in the past to help yourself feel better, like asking someone for a hug, taking a hot bath, or snuggling under the covers with a good book. You can also think about what is pleasing to each of your senses. Here are some examples, but it’s really whatever is soothing for you;
- Taste – eating a favourite food
- Touch – playing with your pet
- Sight – looking at a favourite object or reading a novel
- Smell – drinking a cup of hot chocolate, or going outdoors
- Sound – listening to your favourite music
Having a support network
Knowing that you have the support of family and friends is really important, and that they are sensitive to the extra strain you may be under, allowing you the space and time to study.
If as a friend or family member you notice that the stress may be getting too much for the person taking the exam, encouraging them to seek appropriate help could be vital, reassuring them that this is a sign of strength, not weakness.
Exams can bring out the best and worst in people, and we all achieve at different levels, and have different qualities and skills. Exams are not a validation of you as a whole person, you can only do your best, and your best is all that you can do.
As well as the strategies already mentioned, Hypnotherapy is a common method used to help reduce exam stress. Here at Mind Reset I am already helping my clients to fulfil their full potential by helping them to overcome their fear of failure, and feel more confident and relaxed about their upcoming exams. The power of suggestion and visualisation techniques can encourage an individual to clear their racing mind and approach exams with a cool calm state of mind. If you would like help with creating a mind-set for success ahead of your exams contact me here at Mind Reset.
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