It happens at the same time every year. Cyclically, a fresh bunch of students unwittingly sit row after row, trembling with nerves, ready to be tested on all the knowledge they crammed into their heads the night before. Yes, it happens at the same time every year. And every year, is the same anxiety, stress and self doubt as the one before.
Luckily, I have no exams this year. Actually, for the first time in what feels like forever, I have no exams! That’s a moment to celebrate for sure! I do however, have enough memory of the past exams of my life to remember how awful the lead up to these tests are. I have sat 10 GCSES, 4 A levels and an AS Level exam, on top of mock exams and yearly assessments as comes with with the learning territory. With the amount of exams I have done in my time, you would have thought they would have gotten easier to cope with, however I have always suffered greatly with my anxiety around this time of year, and sitting exams has probably led to the worst panic attacks I’ve ever had in my life.
As its that time again, I thought it appropriate to share with you my exam stories, and I want to share my stress and panic and then how I managed to cope with it.
I remember doing my GCSES at the age of 15-16, and I genuinely thought I was going to die of a heart attack. I used to work myself into such a panic. I would shake and be sick multiple times the days running up to my exams, and the morning of, sometimes outside of my school. I would get cold sweats, and my lips would tremble. My whole body was rejecting the idea of the pressure of sitting an exam.
My mind would play tricks on me, and persuade me that something awful was bound to happen, for example I would be sick in front of my whole year group, or I would have to run out of the room and cause a scene. I was mostly worried about people finding out what a mess I was. Despite the fact that it was probably plainly obvious.
Moreover, I used to be petrified of failing. I somewhat still am this way, perhaps in all areas of my life. I don’t like to fail. And I didn’t want to let me family down – in particularly my parents. I felt that if I succeeded, I would have got more attention from my parents, and consequently if I failed the opposite would have been the case. I didn’t want to let anyone else, or myself, down. I was putting myself under extreme pressure.
I was exactly the same during my A level exams, a good 2 years later. Despite having grown up, matured, learned to drive, and having been through the trials and tribulations of being a teenager, I still had a panic attack every time I was asked to sit and write down what I knew about a topic.
I felt embarrassed, and annoyed at myself for not being able to just get on with it. It’s stressful enough without being scared of how bad my panic would affect me.
I can’t even tell you how I dealt with it, because I didn’t. I didn’t fight it, well I may have tried, but I sure as hell didn’t win. Something kind of took over when I sat down and opened my exam paper though, perhaps it was just the distraction. And I did well. I did very well. So if I can do it after just throwing my guts up outside the exam hall and with my body shaking like jelly, you’ll always be one step ahead of me!
I am lucky enough to love learning, and love education. But just so you know, loving learning does not make exams any easier. It is ok to be stressed, and it is ok to struggle when exam period comes along. So I can’t share coping mechanisms as such, as I barely scraped by, but I do have some advice for dealing with the stress of it all.
- To cope with anxiety the doctor did place me on beta blockers, which do slow down your heart rate, however I also used a herbal remedy called “Rescue Remedy” which, whether a placebo or not, definitely made a difference. One to four drop in my water bottle throughout the day and 2 drops under my tongue when I was feeling particularly stressed would really help me to feel more calm and in control.
- Also important, is a relaxing night time routine. I had awful insomnia during the exam periods of all of my qualifications, which in turn produced more anxiety and fretting. If you can get 8-10 hours of sleep a night you’ll feel much more relaxed. If, like me, this much sleep is unrealistic, make sure you’re relaxed and resting, and provide yourself with a calm environment. Having a warm bubble bath, face mask and reading a book helped me. You could also watch a film, have a hot drink or just count sheep. But whatever you do, make sure you’re well rested.
- “Fail to prepare, prepare to fail” – these words still echo in my head from when my head of year at secondary school used to lead the pep-talk assemblies that preceeded our exam timetables. I hate to admit it, but he was right. Preparation for your exams is the only way you’re ypong to know what to write on your paper. I used to revise until I was black and blue. I would create prompt cards, have post it notes stuck all over the house, make up games, posters and write and rewrite the information until I could recite it from memory. Despite being this prepared, I still felt nervous! But I definitely felt better for it!
- Find out what works for you to keep the information in your head – diagrams, colour coding, recording your own voice and listening to it at night etc.
- Eat well! My brain works better when I have good food! Good meals, lots of snacks and chocolate kept me going during the stressful period.
- A bit of exercise always helps too, to take your mind off it all which is sometimes exactly what you need.
- No matter how silly you think you look, deep breathing always helps to calm yourself down.
- Believe in yourself and your knowledge!
- Be kind to yourself! Make time to relax and do the things that make you happy.
To all those taking exams in the next coming months, breathe deeply, remember how much you have learnt, and most of all, get in there and knock them dead 😉 x