Exam Anxiety: Here’s How to Shake It (And Put In A Stellar Performance)

Exam Anxiety: Here's a Way to Shake It (And Put in a Stellar Performance)

The world can tend to feel a bit different at exam time, thanks to stress, exhaustion and way too many not so healthy (but so delicious) study snacks. And then there’s anxiety, hanging on a little too tightly. If only during the exam it would take itself quietly off to, you know, somewhere else, there would be no problem, but it doesn’t tend to work like that.

When it’s there it feels awful and can affect performance. You have enough to worry about at exam time so anything that can turn down the dial on exam anxiety has to be a good thing, right? Well here you go …

Researchers have found that a simple writing exercise can ease exam anxiety and greatly improve exam performance.

In a recent study, college students were given the opportunity to unload their test anxiety by writing about their exam worries for ten minutes before an exam. The idea was that by doing this, the valuable mental resources that were being taken up by worrying were freed up and made available to work on the exam.

According to associate professor of psychology Sian Beilock who co-authored the study, stressful situations take up working memory – the part of the brain that powers the retrieval and use of information. We only have a limited amount of memory, so the more that’s used up by worrying, the less there is available to nail the exam.

 Beilock is an expert on ‘choking under pressure’, a phenomenon that sees really capable people falling apart at the point of performance, not just in an exam room but also on the sports field, a high-stakes business meeting, an interview or anywhere there’s high pressure.

The Study: What they did.

 As part of the study, college students were given two maths tests. In the first one there was no pressure – students were told just to do their best.

The second one though! Just before the exam, researchers told students that the ones who did well would receive money and that other people in the team were depending on their success. On top of this, they were told that they would be recorded and reviewed by other teachers. Stressed yet?

Half the students were given ten minutes to write about how they were feeling about the test. The other half were told to just sit quietly.

What they found:

The students who wrote about their worries showed a 5% improvement in accuracy between the first maths test (given before the writing) and the second maths test (given after the writing). The group of students who didn’t write showed a 12% drop in accuracy between the two tests.

All up, that’s a 17% difference in performance between the people who wrote and the people who didn’t.

The results were replicated in a subsequent study with 9th grade biology students. Before an important finals exam, students were instructed to either write about how they felt about the test or to think about topics that weren’t related to the test.

Those who didn’t write had higher anxiety and performed worse than those who had, even when the student’s ability was taken into account. The writing task seemed to level the effect of anxiety – those in the writing group who had high exam anxiety performed just as well as though who weren’t as anxious. Out of the high anxiety students, those who wrote before the test averaged a B+ whereas the non-writers averaged a B-.

And finally …

The effect seems to be brought about writing specifically about thoughts and feelings related to the test, not just by writing in general.

Writing about your worries in relation to the task at hand is likely to be something that will help performance in all types of challenging situations – speeches, presentations, interviews, sports – not just exams. That’s good news for everyone – the world could always do with more brilliance. Exams measure ability and talent at a single moment in time and the reading of true potential can be skewed if anxiety steps in. Anything that can let potential shine through regardless of confidence or the tendency to be anxious is a good thing.

Pen, paper, now go be awesome.

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Anxiety has a way of demanding ALL of the attention. It shifts the focus to what feels scary, or too big, or impossible, or what needs to be avoided, or what feels bad, or what our kiddos can’t do. As the grown ups who love them, we know they are capable of greatness, even if that greatness is made up of lots of tiny steps, (as great things tend to be).
Physical activity is the natural end to the fight or flight response (which is where the physical feelings of an anxiety attack come from). Walking will help to burn the adrenalin and neurochemicals that have surged the body to prepare it for flight or fight, and which are causing the physical symptoms (racy heart, feeling sick, sweaty, short breaths, dry mouth, trembly or tense in the limbs etc). As well as this, the rhythm of walking will help to calm their anxious amygdala. Brains love rhythm, and walking is a way to give them this. 
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Try to help your young one access their steady breaths while walking, but it is very likely that they will only be able to do this if they’ve practised outside of an anxiety attack. During anxiety, the brain is too busy to try anything unfamiliar. Practising will help to create neural pathways that will make breathing an easier, more accessible response during anxiety. If they aren't able to access strong steady breaths, you might need to do it for them. This will be just as powerful - in the same way they can catch your anxiety, they will also be able to catch your calm. When you are able to assume a strong, calm, steady presence, this will clear the way for your brave ones to do the same.
The more your young one is able to verbalise what their anxiety feels like, the more capacity they will have to identify it, acknowledge it and act more deliberately in response to it. With this level of self-awareness comes an increased ability to manage the feeling when it happens, and less likelihood that the anxiety will hijack their behaviour. 

Now - let’s give their awareness some muscle. If they are experts at what their anxiety feels like, they are also experts at what it takes to be brave. They’ve felt anxiety and they’ve moved through it, maybe not every time - none of us do it every time - maybe not even most times, but enough times to know what it takes and how it feels when they do. Maybe it was that time they walked into school when everything in them was wanting to walk away. Maybe that time they went in for goal, or down the water slide, or did the presentation in front of the class. Maybe that time they spoke their own order at the restaurant, or did the driving test, or told you there would be alcohol at the party. Those times matter, because they show them they can move through anxiety towards brave. They might also taken for granted by your young one, or written off as not counting as brave - but they do count. They count for everything. They are evidence that they can do hard things, even when those things feel bigger than them. 

So let’s expand those times with them and for them. Let’s expand the wisdom that comes with that, and bring their brave into the light as well. ‘What helped you do that?’ ‘What was it like when you did?’ ‘I know everything in you wanted to walk away, but you didn’t. Being brave isn’t about doing things easily. It’s about doing those hard things even when they feel bigger than us. I see you doing that all the time. It doesn’t matter that you don’t do them every time -none of us are brave every time- but you have so much courage in you my love, even when anxiety is making you feel otherwise.’

Let them also know that you feel like this too sometimes. It will help them see that anxiety happens to all of us, and that even though it tells a deficiency story, it is just a story and one they can change the ending of.
During adolescence, our teens are more likely to pay attention to the positives of a situation over the negatives. This can be a great thing. The courage that comes from this will help them try new things, explore their independence, and learn the things they need to learn to be happy, healthy adults. But it can also land them in bucketloads of trouble. 

Here’s the thing. Our teens don’t want to do the wrong thing and they don’t want to go behind our backs, but they also don’t want to be controlled by us, or have any sense that we might be stifling their way towards independence. The cold truth of it all is that if they want something badly enough, and if they feel as though we are intruding or that we are making arbitrary decisions just because we can, or that we don’t get how important something is to them, they have the will, the smarts and the means to do it with or without or approval. 

So what do we do? Of course we don’t want to say ‘yes’ to everything, so our job becomes one of influence over control. To keep them as safe as we can, rather than saying ‘no’ (which they might ignore anyway) we want to engage their prefrontal cortex (thinking brain) so they can be more considered in their decision making. 

Our teens are very capable of making good decisions, but because the rational, logical, thinking prefrontal cortex won’t be fully online until their 20s (closer to 30 in boys), we need to wake it up and bring it to the decision party whenever we can. 

Do this by first softening the landing:
‘I can see how important this is for you. You really want to be with your friends. I absolutely get that.’
Then, gently bring that thinking brain to the table:
‘It sounds as though there’s so much to love in this for you. I don’t want to get in your way but I need to know you’ve thought about the risks and planned for them. What are some things that could go wrong?’
Then, we really make the prefrontal cortex kick up a gear by engaging its problem solving capacities:
‘What’s the plan if that happens.’
Remember, during adolescence we switch from managers to consultants. Assume a leadership presence, but in a way that is warm, loving, and collaborative.♥️
Big feelings and big behaviour are a call for us to come closer. They won’t always feel like that, but they are. Not ‘closer’ in an intrusive ‘I need you to stop this’ way, but closer in a ‘I’ve got you, I can handle all of you’ kind of way - no judgement, no need for you to be different - I’m just going to make space for this feeling to find its way through. 

Our kids and teens are no different to us. When we have feelings that fill us to overloaded, the last thing we need is someone telling us that it’s not the way to behave, or to calm down, or that we’re unbearable when we’re like this. Nup. What we need, and what they need, is a safe place to find our out breath, to let the energy connected to that feeling move through us and out of us so we can rest. 
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But how? First, don’t take big feelings personally. They aren’t a reflection on you, your parenting, or your child. Big feelings have wisdom contained in them about what’s needed more, or less, or what feels intolerable right now. Sometimes it might be as basic as a sleep or food. Maybe more power, influence, independence, or connection with you. Maybe there’s too much stress and it’s hitting their ceiling and ricocheting off their edges. Like all wisdom, it doesn’t always find a gentle way through. That’s okay, that will come. Our kids can’t learn to manage big feelings, or respect the wisdom embodied in those big feelings if they don’t have experience with big feelings. 
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We also need to make sure we are responding to them in the moment, not a fear or an inherited ‘should’ of our own. These are the messages we swallowed whole at some point - ‘happy kids should never get sad or angry’, ‘kids should always behave,’ ‘I should be able to protect my kids from feeling bad,’ ‘big feelings are bad feelings’, ‘bad behaviour means bad kids, which means bad parents.’ All these shoulds are feisty show ponies that assume more ‘rightness’ than they deserve. They are usually historic, and when we really examine them, they’re also irrelevant.
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Finally, try not to let the symptoms of big feelings disrupt the connection. Then, when calm comes, we will have the influence we need for the conversations that matter.

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