Managing exam stress
Test-taking anxiety or stress is very common among university students. It can be very distressing and sometimes debilitating. Often students find they get good course grades but come exam time their grades drop. This could be because of either poor exam preparation techniques and/or stress levels becoming too high.
What is stress?
Stress is neither negative nor positive. It is our body's normal response to challenge, threat or excitement. The stress response is only a problem if it occurs too often, exists for too long a time before dissipating, or occurs with a force that is too strong.
The consequences of stress depend on your interpretation of the physical symptoms. Whether you experience these feelings as a help or a barrier determines whether you label your stress as positive or negative, motivating or paralysing. Consider how differently these two people label their feelings: One is a student just prior to a major exam, the other is a sportsperson before a critical event. Both are aware that the palms of their hands are sweating, they can feel their hearts racing and have strange feelings in the pit of their stomachs. The student might typically feel distressed about his aroused state and view his feelings negatively as almost a sign of impending doom and failure. He may lie awake worrying about his physical condition as well as about the exam. The sportsman on the other hand takes exactly the same bodily sensations and interprets them positively as signs of being able to motivate himself to run faster, jump higher, throw better. He may be glad of the extra wakeful time to think and plan. We often hear of athletes "psyching themselves up" or "getting their adrenalin flowing" before an important event in order to improve their performance. These situations tell us something important about stress: It can either be a barrier or an aid to success depending on how you interpret, label and control it.
It would be a mistake to get rid of all stress during exam time, because it is useful and necessary for you to perform at your optimum level. But in order to use it to your advantage you need to:
- learn to accept the physical sensations of stress and label them positively
- know at what level you are motivated or paralysed by your stress
- bring your stress down to manageable levels.
If you are finding that your stress-level is paralysing then read on.
How can I manage my stress productively?
Because stress has both physiological and psychological components it is most useful and effective if you tackle paralysing stress from many directions.
Ensure realistic performance expectations
Research shows that many students demand too much from themselves in exam situations. For example, a student who usually gets about 60% for maths suddenly demands 75% of himself. There is nothing wrong with wanting to improve marks, but we believe that to expect a jump of this magnitude is unrealistic.
The way to go about achieving this goal would be in a term-by-term plan. First make sure of scoring 65% consistently, than work towards 70%. Finally over a number of tests/assignments aim for 75%. If we set realistic standards of performance for ourselves, we will become accustomed to success rather than failure. And nothing motivates like success. Try and identify unrealistic expectations you might have, especially in the subjects you find most stressful. Then draw up a plan of action setting goals in a step-by-step way so that your achievements reflect these goals.
Paralysing stress is often caused by comparing our own exam performance or exam preparation with that of our classmates. What we should be doing is using our own performance as a standard against which to set goals. When we rely on other people's achievements as a standard we almost always set our expectations incorrectly; either too high or too low. Make a list of people with whom you sometimes compare your own performance. Consciously resist any thought to do so in the future.
Manage outside pressures
Often unrealistic performance expectations and demands placed on us by other people make us feel pressured and stressed. Monitor your performance regularly so that you can become the best judge of your own achievements and set your own realistic standards.
Managing competition for scarce resources
This is a common cause of paralysing stress, in particular, for final year students. We are increasingly witnessing more and more people chasing fewer and fewer opportunities. Remind yourself of your step by step approach to achieving your goals and contemplate other ways of achieving the same goal or alternatives to your primary goal.
The way we see ourselves and the way we think/talk to ourselves controls the way we will respond in stressful situations. Each time you start thinking or saying something negative such as "I failed last time, I'll probably fail again this time," challenge this attitude with a strong logical, forceful self-statement: "OK, so I failed last time but that doesn't mean I'm going to fail again this time. I'm better prepared and I've got a new approach to my work". Change your paralysing stress to motivating stress.
Reward yourself whenever you succeed; if you manage to halt a negative thought and turn it into a positive one, tell yourself so, if you managed to concentrate in class or get through a difficult piece of work, congratulate yourself. You'll get to feeling good about yourself and your self-confidence will improve.
Practice negative thought stopping
Banish negative thoughts by visualising a STOP sign and saying forcefully: "Stop!" follow this exclamation with a positive saying such as: "I am capable, competent and in control!"
Rehearse your exam two days before the time
During WWII, researchers found that soldiers who mentally and physically prepared themselves for battle by vividly rehearsing in their minds what was about to occur in combat, experienced relatively little battle stress compared with those soldiers who went into battle without prior mental rehearsal. If possible, locate and visit the room where your exam will be held and pretend it is the day of your exam.
Rehearse the whole process, from you waiting outside with other students to you completing the paper and handing it in feeling satisfied.
Sport psychologists have known for a long time that visualising success can make an enormous difference to sporting performance in competitions. Ironically though, most of us do the opposite for exams. People spend much more time visualising failure than they do success. You can build your confidence and minimise stress by being positive about what you do know, not negative about what you don't. After each revision session, cultivate a sense of achievement by congratulating yourself on knowing more now than when you started your revision session.
Prior to the exam visualise yourself going into the exam room, feeling confident and successfully completing the exam paper. Include as much detail in this visualisation as you wish. The more real it seems the better.
Practice muscle relaxation
Much of the discomfort you feel during a panic attack is due to your voluntary muscles tensing. Progressive muscle relaxation trains you to be able to relax your muscles and hence decrease the unpleasant physical sensations at will.
It takes about three months of twice-daily practice of a relaxation exercise to develop a solid relaxation response. You can fast-track the learning of relaxation response. To do this you will need to practice a short relaxation exercise for about two minutes every hour you are awake for the final two weeks before your exams.
The Counselling Service offers workshops and individual consultation in relaxation training.
As a start, try this exercise. Sit or lie somewhere comfortable. Work through your whole body, muscle by muscle, tensing the muscle for 10 seconds and then relaxing it for 10 to 15 seconds. Work from your feet through your body to your scalp. Take your time and relax.
Don't stress if you find it difficult at first. It gets easier with practice. Some soothing background music can also help.
If panicky, try distraction
Mental distraction techniques help, not only in slowing down your heart beat and rush of adrenalins, but also refocuses your attention away from the stress evoking situation or thoughts.
- Count backwards from 100 or 1000 in 7s.
- Breathe in for the count of 3, hold for the count of 3, exhale for the count of 3 and hold for the count of 3. Repeat as many times as you want.
Eat the right kinds of food
Some foods are more calming than others. Milk and bananas for example contain naturally occurring morphine like substances which help to calm you down. Other healthy "comfort foods" include mashed potato, bread and baked beans (although I would not recommend baked beans the night before or morning of the exam!). Lettuce and other raw vegetables are also helpful.
Some foods on the other hand, just help to wind you up. Sugar is the main culprit here. It may give an instant "energy hit", but that's at the cost of making you even more nervy than you were before. Chocolate, interestingly enough, seems to be the exception. It is possible that the theobromine in the chocolate has a calming effect and cancels out the effect of the sugar. If you absolutely must eat sweet things during your exam time, then try to keep to chocolate rather than directly sugary ones.
Get rid of nervous energy through exercise
In addition to, or in place of relaxation exercises, you may choose to work off your stress through physical exercise. Apart from calming you down, exercising also increases the rate of blood flow around your body, and to the brain as well. It appears that this can really help you to think more clearly, and to learn better.
It doesn't really matter whether you cycle, swim, play tennis, kick boxing, or do anything else as long as it's your whole body you're exercising. Sorry, chess just isn't good enough! Try going for a brisk thirty minute walk. And focus on letting go of body tension. Most students return from such walks feeling decidedly more relieved and relaxed.
Avoid stress enhancing drugs
Caffeine is a very powerful drug - its acts directly on the central nervous system and heightens emotional arousal. You will have enough emotional arousal just from worrying about exams, it seems an extremely bad idea to fill your system up with a drug that will activate that.
Nicotine can act as a stimulant. So watch out for those "smokos" that are meant to relax but in fact increase your blood pressure. Find something else to distract.
Beware of alcohol
Alcohol may help you to feel relaxed but at a serious cost.
The reason why alcohol is so popular as a social drug is because it has an amnesiac effect - it helps you to forget things. So people use it to relax because it helps them to forget what's bothering them - at least for the time being. The problem is that alcohol is not selective in what it helps you to forget. During exam times forgetting is exactly what you don't need to do!
Aromatherapy involves using essential oils from plants, which can help you to relax more easily. Try a couple of drops of lavender oil on your pillow at night. Or put a few drops of lavender, rosemary or geranium oil into your bath.
Other stress reduction tips
- Take time off from jobs and other activities, if necessary.
- Avoid making yourself worse e.g. by not eating regular meals or fasting.
- Expect to have disturbed, restless sleep immediately prior and during the exam period. Prepare yourself for this by getting good sleep prior to this period.
- Do not terminate a relationship, no matter how marginal, immediately prior to or during the exam period. Your emotional response may be surprising. Jumbled emotions can jumble your mind. Hang on and deal with the relationship issue after your last exam.
Note: If your stress has increased significantly because of circumstances outside your control (e.g. family problems, accommodation problems, death in the family), see a counsellor. You are able to apply for Supplementary exams on grounds of special consideration. Enquire about the procedure at your faculty office.