Dealing with Exam Anxiety

Exams are the performance of your life that will make or break your future. The months leading up to the exam are essential to gathering facts and knowledge and forming good habits. The weeks leading up to the exam are essential to prepare mentally. On the day of the exam, you need to focus like an elite performer. But too often, anxiety gets in the way of performing at your best. How can you negate the negative effects of anxiety so that you can be free to shine on exam day?

Watch the animation, or, if you prefer, read the transcript below, for some tips on dealing with exam anxiety.

Clinical practice is a daily performance. The outcome is life or death.

Your Exam is a performance. Probably the most important performance of your life. The outcome determines your future, so getting it right is imperative.

All performances trigger anxiety. Anxiety is inevitable; predictable. If you anticipate it, why don’t you prepare for it? How important is it to you to prepare for the biggest performance of your life?

Think back to your last performance – most likely the last exam you did. Remind yourself of the experience. Now I’ve got some ideas you may like to consider.  What’s actually happening during a high stake performance? The body’s sympathetic nervous system is being activated in a fight or flight response, dumping adrenaline and cortisol into the bloodstream. It makes you alert, heightens your senses and makes available all your strength and resources. It gives you tunnel vision to focus on the task.

But if that response goes too far, it’s disastrous   The tunnel vision closes in around you. You begin to panic, your mind goes blank, you become sweaty and your mouth goes dry! It’s predictable. But you have to learn to control the response.

Performance anxiety affects you physically, mentally, and emotionally. A three-pronged attack will allow you to be better prepared for the full range of effects that you experience under pressure. And just like practicing any other skill, you need to practice this skill before you are faced with the provoking situation.

The physical effects are debilitating. Breathing is important. Deep, diaphragmatic breathing: in for 3 seconds and out for 5. Practice it. It doesn’t come naturally! Conscious muscle stretching and relaxation releases the tension in the body – it releases that stored up strength ready to pounce or run. Running now won’t help, so discharge that energy consciously.

The mental effects are numbing. It needs to be dealt with, so practice some mindfulness techniques. Focus on the anxiety. Observe the emotion in a non-judgemental and objective manner. Visualise it – give it a colour and a texture. Take care to consciously look at it and acknowledge it. And now park it in the corner so that you can focus on the task at hand. If the anxiety creeps back – simply park it in the corner again. You see, rather than fighting your anxiety, it is more helpful to accept that you feel anxious, acknowledge the emotion, consciously move it out of the way, and direct your attention back to the task. The task of performing at your best!

Leading up to the performance of your life, there are things to consider. How would lack of sleep impact your performance? Would caffeine and alcohol influence the adrenaline surge? Would exercise and fresh air aid in dispelling the negative effects? Would healthy food influence your physical performance? All performers aim to be at their peak physically to perform optimally. Should you not do the same?

Are you sabotaging your own performance by ignoring the basics? Would you want your pilot to be sleep deprived and living on caffeine and fast foods for weeks before your long haul flight? You can’t honestly expect to be at your peak if you self-sabotage leading up to the performance of your life!

Let’s look at some evidence: last minute cramming increases anxiety and has no benefit. Your first attempt is your best attempt: statistics show that the more you do an exam, the less the success rate. Performers train and practice for a performance months before the time.  So should you. In fact, if you don’t prepare, the consequences are disastrous.  Would you attempt performing an emergency landing with an aircraft full of passengers without any coaching? Why would you perform without preparing? Without practicing? Why would you give an exam a go without coaching?  

What really counts in managing performance anxiety is the preparation. Months of it.

Let’s recap: Exams are the performance of your life that will make or break your future. Preparation is paramount to perform at your peak. The months leading up to the exam are essential to gathering facts and knowledge and form habits. The weeks leading up to the exam are essential to prepare mentally. On the day of the exam, you need to focus like an elite performer.

We look forward to hearing your thoughts and comments on this important topic that affects each of us at some time in our career!

1 Comment on Dealing with Exam Anxiety

  1. I like how positive this is. Makes a lot of difference to your frame of mind if you start by believing your hard work will pay off!

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