Recently I had a discussion with some tertiary students and avoiding mental blackouts was one of the common questions raised. So I took the opportunity to collect some strategies how to deal with exam nerves, mental blackout or exam anxiety. There are many more ways or tips I could have chosen, that means the collection below is not complete by any means, but it should give you some ideas to start.
Being afraid of exams, speeches and competitions is more common than you might think. The difference between failing (e.g. forgetting everything you learned) or – despite exam anxiety – being successful is in your thoughts and your preparation.
The exam situation itself is not scary or life threatening. Don’t forget: there are situations as well where you can really enjoy the excitement: at the cinema in a crime or horror story, excitement when you can’t wait for something great, or thrilling experiences in a roller coaster. What makes it so powerful to make you sweat and shiver are your thoughts about the situation. That’s the good news already, because you can learn to handle and change your thoughts.
What happens during exam anxiety?
But let’s see first, what happens in a situation when you experience exam anxiety: At first, our bodies’ reactions to a real stress (e.g. a tiger attacking you) and to an imagined stress (e.g. exams jitters) are the same: fight or flight.
Your body is preparing everything you need to either fight or escape: heart rate and blood pressure are increased, digestion is paused, muscles are supplied with blood, all unnecessary body functions are shut down, but your instincts are sharpened.
These fight or flight reactions, unfortunately for exam situations, include reduced brain power, because thinking is not required if your instincts are taking over. This is the reason why you sometimes have mental blackouts during exams when you are highly stressed. There simply is not enough capacity left to remember the learned facts, because they are not needed to survive in a situation that seems to require fight or flight.
Be prepared and calm down
Being calm is key when you have to perform at your best because this unlocks access to your memory and logical thinking. There are strategies you should practice before your exam (during learning and preparation). They will help you to stay calm and relaxed:
- Preparation is key: Good time management and ensuring that all the exam topics are learned early enough before the exams. There is no way to expect good results without being prepared. This requires discipline which will help you everywhere in life. It is easier to be calm and focused when you are prepared.
- Rhythmic breaths: Practice calm breathing in a constant rhythm whenever you are stressed e.g. 4 seconds breathing in – 6 seconds out. This will send information to your brain to calm down. It works, quite fast. The more often you use this tool, the easier you can use it successfully in exam situations to regain calmness.
- Quit worrying: Worrying about the possibility of difficult questions and about not having enough time to complete your exam is the fastest way to raise your stress level which in turn increases your chances of experiencing a mental blackout. Stop these unhealthy thoughts e.g. with a command like “Stop it!”
- It will not kill you: Be aware that an exam is not a life threatening situation! It will not kill you, definitely!
- Create mock exam situations: Recreate exam scenarioswith your peers, friends or your parents. Let them ask you questions about the topic. This allows you acclimatize to stress little by little and eventually you will be able to cope with it. Always practice the test-exam till you can end with a positive feeling or a successful paper. In case you have to prepare a speech, you can do the same: practice it in front of friends or family, being a bit nervous is fine. That’s part of being wide awake and ready for performance; being too relaxed is not recommended either. Getting used to competition situations is a tool even professional athletes are using to cope well under stress!
- If you change your thoughts it is changing how you react to a situation. Definitely you will react differently when you fear a situation as compared to when you see it as a challenge to prove what you’ve learned.
- Create a success-video clip in your mind which shows how you are relaxed, enjoying the challenging situation, you learned all important details and you perform at your best. Repeat this video clip every evening in bed; this programs your brain to success.
Remember: You are the master of your brain, you can control your thoughts, but you have to practice it!
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