This is a guest post by Andy Hix of zenatwork.co.uk.
Stress affects your wellbeing, and your ability to study and perform well in the exam itself. The ability to calm yourself down when you’re feeling stressed is therefore a crucial part of doing well, but a skill few young people are taught.
In this article, I’ll explain what happens in the brain and the body when we’re feeling stressed, and then suggest 5 simple mindfulness exercises that can help you to deal with it.
The stress response is triggered when we think we’re being threatened, and is also known as the fight-or-flight response. Our bodies evolved to be able to react quickly and effectively to a physical threat, like a saber-toothed tiger. We become very focused on the danger, our muscles tense so that we’re ready to run or fight, our digestion stops to save resources, and our breathing and heart rate quicken. None of this is very helpful if the ‘threat’ is not a physical one, but rather a mental or emotional one. The threat of not doing well in your exams is not something you can throw a spear at. When the stress response is triggered, the amygdala (sometimes called the brain’s ‘stress centre’) is activated, and this cuts off activity in the neocortex. This is the part of the brain that helps you with concentration, deep thought, memory, creativity and decision-making, and is exactly the bit you want to be using for your exams. You might have noticed that, when you feel stressed, your mind goes blank and you can’t focus or remember things you know really well. This is the reason why.
Mindfulness means paying attention to the present moment, without judgment. Focusing on the here and now can help you to not get lost in fearful thoughts of the future or comparing yourself to others.
This is one of the most popular exercises I teach. It helps you to calm down very quickly by focusing on your breath instead of the thoughts that are stressing you out. Simply count up to 7 as you breathe in and 11 as you breathe out. Don’t change how you’re breathing: increase or decrease the speed of the counting to match your breath. Try it now, with your hand on your tummy so you can really feel it rising and falling. Do it for at least 5 breaths. You can do this before you revise or while you’re waiting to do the exam. People often feel calmer within one minute of doing it.
One problem exam stress can cause is not being able to sleep, which then makes it harder to study, and you have less energy and focus. Beditation is an exercise you can do when you’re lying in bed to help you drift off. It involves slowly placing your attention in different parts of your body, from your feet all the way through to your head. It helps your body to relax and your mind to go quiet. Here’s a recording you can use. Once you’ve learnt how to do it, I suggest doing it without the recording so you don’t sleep with an electronic device next to you, as this can affect your sleep.
You can’t be stressed and grateful at the same time. Before you go to bed, write a list of 3 things you appreciate about the day. It could be really small things like having clean water to drink or it being a sunny day. This might also help you sleep and generally feel more positive.
When you notice you’re feeling stressed, it can really help to tell someone you trust about it. Just naming the thoughts and feelings you’re having (for example ‘I keep thinking I’m going to fail because I haven’t done enough revision’ or ‘I’m feeling tension in my tummy’) can help you to deal with it.
When I’m stressing about something, I find it really useful to think about the worst thing that might happen, and then the best thing. So if you did fail the exam, what would happen? How bad would the consequences be? Chances are your life will still turn out okay! You’ll get over it; it won’t be the end of the world. Then write down what would happen if you did better than expected. How would that be? Focusing on what you do want to happen is a really powerful way of feeling more positive about it.
Everyone feels stressed sometimes, but by learning and practising simple techniques like these, you can stop it having a serious impact on your happiness, and on your results. Out of all of these tips though, I think the best thing you can do is to talk to someone about it. They say that a problem shared is a problem halved!