Manage exam-related anxiety during your fellowship exams with these 5 tips
You are preparing to sit a very important exam for your career. In fact, your whole career depends on you passing this (or these) exams. But when you think about the approaching exam you start to feel rising anxiety, coming up from your feet, like a wave that’s going to engulf you, pulling you down and under, overwhelming you so that you can think of nothing else. Panic starts to rise. Your attention focuses on surviving the onslaught of thoughts and feelings. More panic – what if this is how you feel on the day of the exam?! What if this happens during the exam? What if…? What if…?
Managing exam anxiety in the moment is an important skill that you can learn so that you can swim through it rather than feel engulfed by it. This is especially important if you have a history of exam anxiety or have failed the exam before and are worried about how anxiety may affect your performance on the day. Practice these tips for better anxiety management so that your hard work in exam preparation can pay off and allow you to perform at your best.
Tip #1 – Take a deep breath.
Deep breathing using your diaphragm is a powerful anxiety-reducing technique that activates your relaxation response. It helps the body go from fight-or-flight mode (sympathetic nervous system) to a relaxation response (parasympathetic nervous system). For example, whenever you feel anxiety rising, such as increased heart and/or respiratory rate, butterflies in the stomach or tenseness around your neck and shoulders, take a deep breath – slowly inhale to a count of 4, filling your lungs deep in your chest, gently holding your breath for a count of 4, and then slowly exhale to a count of 4. Repeat at least three times. Feel the difference – the panic starting to abate.
Do: Make this into a habit – whenever you feel that fight-or-flight response commence or recognise your stress response, take a slow deep breathe.
Tip #2 – Accept that you are anxious.
How you perceive your anxiety will affect your response to it. Anxiety, especially in relation to important events or situations like Fellowship exams, is normal and to be expected. Therefore, accepting that’s how you feel makes sense – anything else would be like fighting the inevitable. Jonatan Mårtensson said “Feelings are much like waves, we can’t stop them from coming but we can choose which one to surf.” Deciding to accept how you are feeling, by reminding yourself that anxiety is simply an emotional reaction to a situation, allows you to put it into perspective, engage the executive function area of your brain and move past, and with, the feelings. It’s like accepting that there are waves in the sea rather than trying to stop them from breaking on the beach. Remember, some anxiety is a good thing. It prepares your mind and body for the work ahead and motivates you to get there on time and be well prepared. Acceptance is important – trying to fight or eliminate anxiety usually makes it worse and it perpetuates the idea that anxiety is intolerable or dysfunctional. So, though you may not like it or you would prefer different, the reality is you are feeling anxious. Embrace it. Welcome it.
Do: learn more about your anxiety and how it manifests (signs and symptoms), as well as about anxiety in general. For example, see the Australian Psychological Society’s website for more information.
“Feelings are much like waves, we can’t stop them from coming but we can choose which one to surf.” ― Jonatan Mårtensson
Tip #3 – Be a nonjudgmental observer of your thoughts
What do I mean by this? Notice your thoughts as they come and go through your mind without labelling them as either good, bad, or other, without categorising them in any way in relation to yourself (e.g., “I thought this therefore I am a bad person”) or trying to stop or get rid of them (“I’m not going to think about ….”). Instead, observe with curiosity what thoughts emerge– it can be easier by thinking to yourself or saying out loud the phrase: “I notice I’m thinking about….” “I notice that I had the thought ….” or “ I notice that I’m feeling…” and adding the thought, feeling or sensation. For example, “I had a thought that the exam is hard”.
Thoughts are just thoughts. They come and go. We don’t need to treat each one as factual, the truth or reality. We don’t need to act on each one. We can decide to choose which thought we will be influenced by or will act on, based on our values and beliefs. Using the metaphor of a sushi train (see Russ Harris’ video about the metaphor), thoughts are like the sushi plates going around and around near your table. It’s up to you which one you choose to take off the sushi train and ‘eat’. So, we can learn to be open to whatever thoughts that may come up in our mind and create distance between these thoughts and who we are, therefore becoming less reactive and more thoughtful, thereby living more fully in the present moment rather than the past (I failed the exam because I’m not good enough) or the future (What if I fail? What if I can’t answer all the exam questions?).
Do: practice observing your thoughts, feelings, emotions and sensations without judgment, but instead with curiosity and self-compassion. Watch the video by Russ Harris, an internationally acclaimed ACT trainer and author of The Happiness Trap, called The Struggle Switch for more information on this.
Tip #4 – Use visualisation to calm or energise
Visualisation can be a useful technique to help you reach your goal of passing your exam(s). It works by getting your mind and body ready for what you want to happen. Visualisation can be used to either calm or energize and plays a big part in many relaxation techniques. For example, visualising water flowing softly over pebbles or standing at the beach with water between your toes, pulling away your stress and worry can be cathartic and beneficial in slowing down the mind for relaxation and managing anxiety. Feeling overwhelmed? Visualize yourself as a small child overwhelmed by the task or situation in front of you and then growing and growing, to gigantic adult proportions to overshadow the task/situation, making it small and easy to conquer.
Visualisations tend to be more helpful when practiced regularly as practice will make it easier to relax if or when you’re anxious in the moment. Aim to practice your visualisation exercises daily in a quiet place, and make sure your visualisations are as detailed as possible. Remember – always focus on what you want to happen, not on what you don’t want to happen.
Do: Practice using imagery and visualisation on a regular basis prior to your exams (e.g., start weekly and build up to a daily habit), so if you are nervous on exam day, using this practiced technique will be second nature.
Tip #5 Power pose – the Wonder Woman Stance
We are greatly influenced by our nonverbal language – much more than we realise. Amy Cuddy, a Social Psychologist, conducted research on body language and found that we can change our perceptions of ourselves, even our body chemistry, by changing our body positions for a minimum of 2 minutes, for added confidence and reduced anxiety. See her TED Talk on power poses and body language here.
For example, use this strategy to change how you feel ‘in the moment’ as well as building your self-confidence over time. Power posing, also called the Wonder Woman stance, has been shown to improve mood, perspective and confidence. Firstly, stand tall with your chest out and your hands on your hips, feet slightly apart, look into the distance (not down). Hold the pose for a minimum of two minutes for optimal results.
Do: Try doing this stance before every study period and then before the exam (to enhance the benefit of habits).
Feel this is too difficult to manage on your own? Then take advantage of GPEx’s exam preparation programs which involve a Performance coach and organisational psychologist, to assist you to manage any exam anxiety you are experiencing by learning effective strategies, as well as learn other effective exam preparation techniques to optimise your exam success potential.
- Cuddy, A.J.C., Schultz, S.J., & Fosse, N.E. (2018). P-Curving a More Comprehensive Body of Research on Postural Feedback Reveals Clear Evidential Value for Power-Posing Effects: Reply to Simmons and Simonsjohn (2017): https://doi.org/10.1177/0956797617746749
- Davis, S. (2016) Emotional Agility. Get unstuck, embrace change and thrive in work and life. Avery (Penguin Random House), New York, USA
- Harris, R. (2007) The Happiness Trap Stop Struggling, Start Living. Exisle Publishing, Australia.
- Tartakovsky, M. (2016). 9 Ways to Reduce Anxiety Right Here, Right Now. Psych Central accessed 20/4/2021 at 9.31am from https://psychcentral.com/lib/9-ways-to-reduce-anxiety-right-here-right-now