Let’s start by dealing with exams, which is often the first thing that students and other learners think of when the “S” word comes up (and I don’t mean that “S” word).
Sometimes I feel impelled to explain things backwards, by giving people the answer first, followed by the reasons, because people are often impatient by nature, and cultural programming. So, if you want to end your reading here, this is the key to conquering exam stress:
Stop caring so much.
Now, if you’re still reading… are you still there? 🙂
Please note that I did not say “stop caring”. The key is to adopt a detached mind frame, in which you don’t care any more than just enough to get through the exam.
What I tell you is probably contrary to most of the advice about conquering exam stress. There is abundant advice centred on meditation, breathing, imagining tranquil scenes of nature, and so on… I don’t have time to repeat all that here. Keep it simple. You’ll relax better.
Too much complicated advice just confuses people. While those traditional approaches are worthwhile, I find it more useful to jump over the airy touchy-feely side… and cut to the endpoint. And if you’re already affected by exam stress … well, that’s why you’re reading this article, right?
Care a little bit less.
While exams are important, it’s important not to let them completely dominate your life. Don’t take them too seriously.
If you’re nervous about exams, then you already care enough to want to pass. So, just dial it down a bit, and remember! Your LIFE does NOT depend on any exams.
If you’ve already studied, then cramming the night before, or even the morning of the exam, simply WILL NOT HELP! Waiting outside for the exam hall to open is not a time to add to your stress by last-second reading. (If you’ve waited that long, then start praying instead… seriously. You should anyway; it never hurts to do so.)
So, the next practical advice to reduce your exam stress is:
Start studying early.
As with everything, you all say you want choices, and to be in control of your own life. If you can show up early to a rock concert or sports event, or movie premiere, then you can study early too.
But what if your mind just blanks out?!
One of the most common outcomes of exam stress is blanking out. Here’s a practical tip to survive a blank-out moment, if you find that your mind still locks up: ask yourself specific small easy questions first, related to what you are looking for.
For instance, on a math test, if there’s a question on, say, graphing rational functions, your mind may suddenly freeze. Ask yourself a few simple and related easy questions, to which you already know the answers, such as: “Is this a curved or a straight line?” or “What is the highest exponent in the equation (which is right in front of me)?” This technique gets your mind moving easily, in the direction you need to go. You’ll often be able to unlock your mind within three simple tries. And if need be, get your eyes off the page for a long moment, and breathe deeply (your brain calms down with more oxygen).
It also helps to develop a simple pattern of steps, a recipe, for attacking known types of questions, so your job becomes more automatic. For example, with that pesky math question about graphing, always start the same way and follow your recipe: X-intercept first, then Y-intercept, then asymptotes, and so on.
And keep practising easier questions until you don’t have to think about them much at all. Then, on the exam, if you do those easy questions first, you’ll have already started to beat the challenge. Skip the hard questions and come back later!
This situation is within your power to conquer!
Dr Paul 🙂