This post was written by Majda Rogers, a CBT therapist who works in the Advice and Counselling Service at Queen Mary. She works using a range of third wave CBT approaches such as Acceptance and Commitment therapy and Compassion Focused therapy, to help students with anxiety, depression and other difficulties.
It has been a full on and unpredictable year given the recent pandemic and national lockdown. Having to manage exams and assignments alongside this may have felt overwhelming and stressful at times. If you have found yourself not getting the mark you needed, then you may be preparing for resits this month, which can bring up feelings of anxiety and worry. I am revisiting content from a previous post I wrote during the summer term with the aim to help you manage exam anxiety so you can hopefully feel less stressed and better able to manage your reassessment. At this point it might be helpful to think about why we feel stress and anxiety in order to understand the ways we can begin to manage it.
Here comes the science bit…
You are probably familiar with some of the common symptoms of stress such as an increase in heart rate, heart palpitations, sweating, irritability and loss of focus. We feel these things because when we face a perceived threat our brains release chemicals that cause a flight-fight-freeze response. This response is mediated by our nervous system which hasn’t changed much since the time of our primal ancestors. Essentially, it has kept us alive for millions of years as it causes us to react to danger.
In a nutshell, although the things that cause us stress have changed over time, the way we react hasn’t. Also, what sets us apart from other species is that we have the ability to think stressful and anxious thoughts, which can trigger the exact same physiological reaction as if we were actually in danger. Thanks, brain! So although exams and resits don’t pose any actual danger to our lives, the way we think about them triggers a similar response.
Let’s look at the following diagram to understand this a bit more.
We can think of the stress response as being made up of three systems, which are interconnected and regulate our emotions.
Our threat system is very powerful, remember: it’s about survival! Exams, in this case, trigger this part which then activates feelings of anxiety. As there is a perceived threat, the drive system is then activated. This system enables us to feel energy, focus and motivation in order to seek out resources and get the things we need. In this way, we can see how stress can actually be helpful. The soothing system is then responsible for releasing hormones to counteract the stress chemicals, which enables us to feel calm and safe. However, if there is too much stress or ‘chronic’ stress over a long period of time, we can get caught in a vicious cycle which can impair the soothing system:
As you can see fearful and self-critical thoughts such as “I’m going to fail” or “I can’t get through this” can lead to unhelpful behaviours such as over studying, cutting out the things you enjoy, not making time for self-care, oversleeping or not sleeping enough. Over time these strategies can become problematic and begin to affect our overall well-being.
So how can we get out of the cycle?
Try to practice noticing what triggers your unhelpful thoughts, to help manage the feelings. You can then ask yourself if the thoughts and behaviours are useful at helping you manage your stress. Here are some actions that might be helpful:
- Try and plan ahead during the exam period, taking into account specific revision still to do, and any other commitments. Once you have an idea of what you need to do you won’t have any dilemmas at the start of the day.
- Prioritise: how are the marks allocated and therefore what do you need to focus on in the exam itself? If your resit is capped for example, then you only need to reach the minimum pass mark
- Try to remind yourself of your motivations for doing the exams; how do these fit in with your overall goals? Remember you have been here before so you already have an idea of what the examination is like
It’s all about balance…
Unfortunately, the soothing system is often overlooked or completely blocked for some of us. When preparing for exams it is very easy to neglect this part if we feel there is not enough time or we might feel guilty for doing things that are unrelated to our studies. But as I have discussed, all the systems are connected so they are all equally important. So here are some things you can try to help counter-balance the stress response and activate the soothing system:
- Plan (guilt-free) breaks as part of your schedule and protect this time: you need time to rest and recover
- Take time at the end of the day to unwind. Do something that you enjoy such as go for a walk or watch TV
- Try to get enough sleep, in order to replenish your energy and help you focus
- Get support from family and friends: it might feel good to tell someone how you feel to get it off your chest
For more practical advice on taking care of your wellbeing during the exam period, see Frankie’s previous blog post: Taking care of your emotional and mental wellbeing during the exam period
If you feel it would be helpful to speak to a counsellor about difficulties you are experiencing, please visit the Advice and Counselling website to find out more, and book an appointment.