Seeing as most people I know are studying for exams at the moment, I think it is the perfect time to blog about FEAR.
From a very young age, people have perceived me as the confident person who will volunteer to put herself through most situations that are embarrassing or out of one’s comfort zone. For the most part, I do fit that description. However, I think my confidence usually relates to situations where I know I won’t kill myself. Need someone to give a speech? I’m ready. Need someone to walk up to a stranger and ask for directions? I’m there. Need someone to dress up as a pineapple and hand out flyers to a juice bar? Call me.
Isn’t there anything I fear in life? Of course there is. Everyone fears something. In my case, there are two situations in life that smash my self-confidence and composure: EXAMS and ISSUES OF HEALTH/WELLBEING.
I go through life with a general sense of happiness and optimism but mention the word exams and I’m a hopeless wreck. When it comes to exams, I literally worry myself sick (even though I know they can’t kill me) and the anxiety can become very debilitating. Luckily, I have learned to control it a bit but it is not easy. And I know some friends who suffer far worse exam anxiety issues than I do. Here is a list of symptoms I have experienced due to exam stress:-
- Loss of breath
- Suicidal thoughts
- Memory loss and total blank outs
Here is a list of some issues I have witnessed people I know go through due to exam stress:-
- Temporary paralysis of an area of their body (most cases it’s one of the hands or arms)
- Appendicitis-like symptoms
- Mental Breakdown & Depression
- Attempts at suicide
It’s painful to write all these things down but it’s something I feel is very common amongst students. And if you’re reading this and you’re anything like me when it comes to exams then I have some tips to get you through this:-
1) You’re not alone
Your friend may be feeling the same forms of anxiety as you are but is afraid to talk about it. Don’t be shy to share these feelings. It’s perfectly normal to go through exam anxiety. Don’t keep the stress bottled up. I have known fellow schoolmates who ended up in mental institutions or attempted suicide due to exams. IT’S NOT WORTH IT. There are so many resources to help you out. The University of Malta organises stress anxiety courses prior to exam season. Councillors are always available to listen to you. You can discuss course material with your lecturer too. There were times my classmates felt we were being given unreasonable amounts of work to do or study. Some lecturers even used to ask us if we’re feeling stressed or not. If your request is legitimate then your lecturer will understand. If your request is really legitimate but your lecturer is unfair, contact your student council or student representative. There’s always someone ready to represent your case.
2) Stay Healthy
Remember, your health comes first. And if your anxiety is so unbearable that even talking to people won’t help then find a doctor you trust and who you can visit during exam periods. This doctor can monitor your blood pressure and other indicators of stress and prescribe to you the appropriate medication or natural health remedies to help you cope with the anxiety. It’s best to visit a doctor who knows your medical history quite well. Be careful though when it comes to medication. Don’t try a drug because your best friend takes it. What’s good for your friend may not be good for you. This reminds me of one of my biggest exam stress gaffes. Before my Advanced Level Accounting exam, I was so stressed that my mother insisted that I take half a Valium pill. After much coaxing, I took the damn pill right before the exam and proceeded to pass out in the middle of the exam on my paper. Needless to say I failed my exam and had the longest sleep ever when I got home. Embarrassing, dangerous and unnecessary. (Hope my mum doesn’t read this). And whatever you do, stay way from coffee and energy drinks. Luckily, I hate both and I am intolerant to caffeine so this was easy for me to do when I was a student. However, I can say that 80% of my friends guzzled down the stuff like there’s no tomorrow and the after effects were ugly.
During exams I always seem to take up sports. I think it’s been my natural response to the anxiety and it should be yours too. Forget about not having enough time. Just wake up early and start your day with a walk, jog or run and your brain will thank you for it later. Drink plenty of water (just buy a six-pack of water and keep it near your desk at all times), eat lots of brain food (bananas, dark chocolate, spinach, oranges…) and get some fresh air every so often.
3) Create a support system
First things first. I’m so interested in knowing as many people as possible that I often forget that the most important people on campus are my classmates. Make sure that when you start a new course, you immediately form a group of friends who will be your lifeline. We’re not superheroes and can’t catch up with all the material for studying. A group of classmates who you can share notes with, discuss assignments and lectures with, study with is INVALUABLE. I hated second year at uni because I felt I didn’t really have a good support system of classmates. I was focused on my activities outside of uni and it made it harder for me to focus on what really mattered. Something similar happened during Sixth Form. Luckily, I b*tch-slapped my ego in time for my final year and thanks to the most amazing classmates I have had the pleasure of befriending, I made it through my exams quite stress free (my dissertation was another story).
Secondly, GO ONLINE. My final year class had a Facebook group between ourselves and a few others with our lecturers. I can’t tell you how many times these groups saved my life. You get the odd student here or there who doesn’t want to share what they know. But I promise you, that 99% of the time your classmates WILL share valuable information with you because they know that a) you might return the favour and b) you’re all in the same boat after all.
Lastly, try and get your family and friends on your side. Sit them down before the exam period and express your anxieties and fears. Perhaps, discuss ways to compromise how you can help them keep calm and how they can help you avoid stress. Nothing is worse then a panicking family member. Before my Advanced Level Economics exam, my mum was more freaked out than me that she fell down the stairs right before I left (Sorry Mum. Not the best thing to post on Mother’s Day). Unfortunately, even the people who care about you the most won’t always get it and will try and blame your mood swings and grumpiness on other unrelated issues. If that’s the case, try and remain as calm as possible with them. Counting to ten actually really works in these scenarios. Trust me. Just breathe in, count to ten, shake it out, smile and laugh at the misunderstanding individual and move on. Why add more stress arguing with your family or friends? Look at the big picture.
4) Prevent Self-Sabotage
I used to feel I’m the Queen of Self-Sabotage when it comes to exams. There were times when I would feel so frustrated that I would procrastinate for hours. Everything would be a distraction to me. Honestly, sometimes I felt like the best thing to do was to disable my Facebook account (one of my friends used to do this successfully until she discovered Twitter), sell my TV, sound-proof my walls and throw away my mobile phone. And I would get even more frustrated when my friends would manage to go out and party and still study and get good grades during exams. I just felt life was really unfair and that I was destined to fail.
One morning I just told myself screw ’em, screw em’ all! My exam study regime is different and that’s OK. We don’t all have the same study routines and that’s cool. Don’t feel peer pressured into believing that you HAVE to do an all-nighter study session to pass an exam, or you can’t stay in during the weekends or that Red Bull is your saviour. My exam regime was to wake up before sunrise, go out and walk as the sun rises, shower and have breakfast, study till noon, LUNCH, study until 6pm, DINNER, relax and be in bed by 9pm. I knew that most people I knew slept during the day and studied during witching hours but that wasn’t for me. If that’s how you roll then be my guest. You’re the only person who can determine what works best for you. Experiment with different study regimes and find the best solution to help you deal with stress. But I must say that a good deal of preventing self-sabotage is getting at least 7 hours of sleep every night. Just sayin’.
And this one is going to hit you like a ton of bricks but in my experience, my greatest source of exam stress came from the fact that I always left studying and assignments to the last minute. I only remedied this situation during the final year of my degree and it improved my grades and decreased my fear of exams dramatically. As they say, prevention is better than cure. In the end, I realised that if I wanted to get something done there was no point thinking about it because that was the leading cause of my stress. All I had to do was do it. No ifs or buts. If you keep thinking about your exam or all the notes you have to read for an exam you have tomorrow, then you’re just going to fall into a spiral of despair. There’s no easy way around it. You have to learn to organise your notes, study them gradually and be prepared for the worst. It sucks if you’re reading this towards the end of your academic year and you’ve just realised you didn’t practise any prevention tactics. Honestly, don’t sweat about it. It’s bloody hard work being a nerd even though it always pays off. Just work hard from now. You still have some weeks/days left. Give it your all and you will see results. Don’t disillusion yourself into thinking you’re going to perform a miracle though. Not all exams go the way we want them to even if we are the most prepared student on the planet. I know, it sucks. The worst thing you can do is pre-condition yourself into thinking you’re going to fail because then, well, you WILL fail.
5) Establish Rituals/Motivations
Motivations come in the form of aims or goals. Some are more education or career oriented: I want to pass this exam to get into that university. I want to pass this exam to help launch my career. Others are personal: I want to pass this exam because the subject professor is my favourite lecturer (this really works for me!). I want to pass this exam because everyone thinks I am going to fail it (prove them wrong!). Whatever your motivation, be careful that it is something you also really want to achieve and that it is not something that was forced onto you. The worst thing is feeling pressure to pass an exam for all the wrong reasons. At the end of the day, it’s just an exam and whoever is pressuring you should lay off. That said, motivations are powerful tools for success and overcoming fear of failure.
As for rituals, ay caramba. I have a pretty weird one. The most helpful advice I ever got to help combat my exam stress was from a dear friend of mine. He once told me a few years ago that whenever I felt like throwing up at the thought of an exam, all I had to do was (graphic content ahead) pretend I was a pimp and that the exam paper was my b*tch; and that if that b*tch misbehaved I had to smack the sh*t out of that b*tch. I feel terrible writing this and it’s quite a degrading example but it has really worked for me. When I go to an exam I get into “beat the b*tch” mode as I call it. I basically trick my brain into thinking I’m being trained my the drill sergeant from hell. Phrases like “Are you going to let a little piece of piss-coloured exam paper step all over you, you f*cking useless excuse of a human being?” start rapidly entering my mind. I get so worked up that the adrenaline from this little pre-exam role-play alone gives me enough energy, stamina and mental clarity to finish the paper. I guess, the whole process makes me feel like there’s no way I’m going to let myself be humiliated by a piece of paper. So I go in like I’m going for a fight. Weird ritual as I warned you all but it has really helped me. I suggest trying to find a frame of mind that helps you remain calm too. And if you find a less violent one, please do share.
I hope this post will be helpful to at least some people. Everyone has different ways to handle their feelings of fear. I like to just not think about it and trust my impulses. Others prefer to practise prevention (something I am working on). What you fear the most (whether it be exams or not) is probably something that is NOT going to kill you. For example, this afternoon I watched a ‘Keeping Up With The Kardashians’ episode where Kim is absolutely petrified of dancing that she can’t even dance to her favourite song alone in her room. I don’t think I would get along with Kim at a slumber party because I practically dance and sing like I’m in a musical all the friggin’ time. However, everyone has fears – some irrational, some rational. If you can’t overcome these fears, just make sure you are aware of them and concentrate on which areas of your life they are holding you back in. Wouldn’t it just be better if we got over the things that set us back from achieving our dreams? Of course. All we got to do is get the courage to punch fear in the face. It may lead to a few smashed knuckles but it’s worth it in the end.
Happy Knuckle Busting & Good Luck to all those who have exams!
Pimp of the Paper,