07 May Helping Exam Anxiety
How To Help Someone With Exam Anxiety
Are you working with, or the parent of someone who is about to sit an exam? Or maybe you’re the one that will be going into that examination room. I’ve recently sat a psychotherapy exam for the second part of my psychotherapy training and it all came flooding back: those heightened feelings around revision. The build up to the day itself. The quandary of the night before: should you revise or get an early night? And then, the day itself, with that awful feeling in your gut, and slightly unreal feeling in your head. I have been helping people with anxiety for years, but even with all that knowledge I was not immune. Do you know why? Because exam anxiety is a normal process, one that’s designed to help us perform well, and is doing a job.
Nevertheless, when you are in the midst of it, it can feel quite terrifying. Here are some ways you can help someone (or yourself), if exams are on the horizon.
Remember That Exam Anxiety is Normal
What is happening is that our flight or fight mechanism is being hi-jacked. Fight or flight is an age-old mechanism which keeps us safe. Once upon a time, if we heard a predator in the bushes, our senses would immediately go on high alert, getting us ready to fight the beast, or run away from it. The looming exams are the predator here, but the problem is that the lead-up to the exam can be weeks if not months, which is a long time to feel like this. For some people, those intense feelings on exam day itself may induce feelings of panic or intense fear. People have been known to run away from examination halls because of this feeling. So, exam anxiety is normal, but it would really help if we could control it, rather than let it control us.
Reducing Anxious Feelings in the Weeks Before
The lead up to exam day can be tough. People are telling you to get a good night’s sleep, offering helpful tips about their own revision styles, and saying less that helpful things like, “it’s only an exam.” People complain about how young people have had so many exams in their school careers over the years, but I do feel that this has helped to get people used to them. They are not something new that suddenly appears when you are sixteen.
That said, what’s important now is to:
Get into a good sleep habit
Worry can really destroy sleep, but you need sleep to help you feel both physically and mentally refreshed. Here are some tips to help you get that good night’s sleep habit:
- Go to bed the same time every day and get up the same time, even on weekends if you have a sleep problem
- Avoid screens (including Kindles) for 2 hours before bed
- Create a wind-down routine: have a bath or warm shower half an hour before (gives your temperature time to drop), listen to Audible, use candles instead of electric lights, aromatherapy, read a book or listen to relaxing music
- Use the relaxation techniques I will be talking about later: 7/11 breathing and progressive relaxation
- If you wake up and can’t get back to sleep, get up and do something boring. You do not want your bed to be associated with tossing and turning and staying awake in your head
- If you do your work on your bed, then create a daytime and night time space. Use cushions, throws, whatever you feel will help you mark the difference.
The most anxious times are when you aren’t getting down to your revision. You are left with a guilty, stressful feeling that can make you feel even less like working. So, it’s vital to do something about this. Here’s where you can encourage them to:
First, just do something. Pick up a book and get started. Once you have got started you can take the time to plan your revision time-table, make it fancy with different colours etc,. but just get into it to get some momentum first. Otherwise, there’s a danger you could get stuck on the planning part
Ask them to think about when they are most alert? Is it evenings, or perhaps first thing in the morning. Use those times wisely.
Encourage them to keep sessions to an hour and twenty mins, maximum. Then have a break.
Layer revision techniques. Don’t just rely on one revision method. They could:
- Make flashcards
- Write out notes, using different coloured pens (the use of different colours will help with memory)
- Set exam questions. This means you have to think like an examiner!
- If you are an extrovert, you may find group revision sessions useful. take it in turns to explain things to each other, or test each other
- Record key points and play them back to yourself as you fall asleep. Guaranteed to get you off to sleep, but also going into your unconscious
- Review the same material often to help it go into the long-term memory. Repetition is key
Reduce Anxiety Day to Day
Worrying about results and the potential impact they may have on your life is distracting, but ultimately isn’t going to help. What’s more, the more someone worries, the more REM sleep they will be having during the night (REM sleep discharges our non-discharged worries in the form of our dreams). REM sleep uses up a lot of mental energy, as well as depleting our deep sleep, the sleep we need to feel physically restored. So, if we can reduce the worrying, it will have many positive repercussions.
Ways to help do this are:
Keep a worry diary.
Write down worries about the exams, the future etc within a fifteen minute timeframe once a day (not too close to bedtime). If they start coming up any other time in the day, tell yourself that you will think about them during your journal time.
Use triggers to help you practise deep breathing
This will help you bring your overall anxiety levels down. Breathe deeply, right into your abdomen, and then breathe out slowly, making sure your outbreath is longer than the inbreath. This activates the parasympathetic nervous system, which is all about calming us down. If you use triggers like cleaning your teeth, putting on the kettle or even going to the loo, to remind you to do this. It will help lower your anxiety. We call this 7/11 breathing and a good goal is counting to 7 on the in-breath and 11 on the outbreak (however, it can be any amount as long as the outbreak is longer).
This can be helpful to get off to sleep. Tense your body up completely, and then let go, enjoying the feeling of tension melt away. You can then focus on your feet, feeling them get heavier and heavier, then your calves and shins and so forth.
This is better than merely vegging out. It is more restorative. Think:
You will also be more likely to get into “flow” which is an extremely beneficial state of mind where you lose touch of time.
Stay Connected – Don’t Drop Fun!
No, this isn’t about networking! Connection and community are vital for our mental health. Someone isolated can drop into having mental health issues in a matter of weeks and studying alone for exams can leave you feeling isolated and disconnected.
On Exam Day
- Remind them to use triggers to remind them to practise the 7/11 breathing technique. These can be standing outside the exam hall, when they take their seat, the moment after they’ve turned over the exam paper. This will help calm them down and prevent panic setting in
- If they can’t remember something, tell them to move on, and it will more likely than not come back into their brain once they’ve stopped trying to force it
- Have a good breakfast that morning, but go easy on the carbs
- Try not to get involved in other people’s panicking. If they have to, go off on their own and practise their breathing.
I offer exam anxiety sessions that can help anyone struggling with feelings of anxiety and stress around revision and exams. I also offer group seminars on exam stress and revision techniques. Please contact me to discuss.