Anxiety is the body’s fight or flight mechanism responding to what it perceives to be a danger. When triggered, for example, by exam stress, the body produces a number of biological responses to either fight or run away.
When it is triggered, a part of your brain called the amygdala releases cortisol, which causes you to have a dry mouth, feel like you need to go to the loo and you suddenly develop an overwhelming desire to run away from the situation.
This is all perfectly normal. Just take a moment to look around, recognise there’s nothing to fear and thank your body for doing its job to protect you. Move on to phase 2: De-activating the fight or flight response through…
When we get anxious, our breathing becomes shallow and we feel like we’re not getting a full breath. This is true! So override that mechanism by engaging in “box breathing”; a technique used in the military to help calm nerves before battle. So this will definitely help beat exam stress!
• Inhale through the nose and count to 4 in your head
• Hold the breath for 4
• Exhale through the mouth for 4
• Hold for 4
Repeat this process for around 5 minutes or until the anxiety has subsided.
Moderate anxiety can actually help students perform better in exams but extreme levels of exam stress is debilitating and affects the working memory. That’s not what you want when the difference between grade boundaries is a few marks!
One great way to help students mentally prepare for a test is for them to start working in test conditions. Ask them to sit past papers like they will in the exam hall. If you can, set everything up in another quiet, organised room and time their practice exam.
Even better, see if their class teacher will take them round the exam hall beforehand. This way students will know where they are sitting in advance and won’t worry about finding their seat.
This is a no brainer but ensuring you’re positively encouraging students throughout their revision and exam periods. It can be an extremely stressful time for students and their families because everyone is hoping it all goes according to plan. However, letting your worries and frustrations show through can hinder a student’s progress.
Many students who suffer from severe anxiety are also prone to procrastination because they literally feel ‘paralysed with fear’. So gentle reminders about how well they are doing will do wonders.
Anxiety can affect our working memories and being in an unnatural setting like an exam hall may not help. When students are on study leave help them work through various memory aids to ensure they are taking in information.
Hopefully by the time they come to the exam the knowledge they have worked hard to retain will just flow out onto the page. Here are some ideas you can try:
• Ask them to read out loud instead of to themselves
• Ask them to teach you what they have just learnt
• Discuss a topic they have just learnt over a 20 minute walk
• Encourage them to draw and label diagrams (for example, of the human heart)
• Meditate with them for 10 minutes each morning before they start studying