Sure, we’ve all heard it said that a little bit of stress can be a good thing. After all, it’s what motivates us to knuckle down and work hard. But exams can make stress levels get out of hand, which can stop us from performing at our best. So it’s important to address it and get it back under control.
When Stress During Exams Causes Panic Attacks
“To understand stress it is first necessary to explain the difference between anxiety and fright,” says Su Dorland, a psychologist specialising in helping students with exam anxiety, and author of Exam Stress? No Worries. “Fright is a response to a realistic threatening situation, such as seeing a mouse in your garden or revising for upcoming exams,” she points out.
When we are frightened or anxious, things start to happen inside our bodies to help us cope with the situation, Dorland explains. “This reaction is often referred to as the alarm reaction or the fight-or-flight response. The alarm reaction automatically occurs when we are either frightened or anxious and it is a useful one because it prepares our bodies to deal with the perceived threat so that we can either fight it or flee it.”
When one experiences the alarm reaction the body prepares itself to act, she continues: “The heart rate and blood pressure increase, the liver releases extra sugar to fuel the muscles and digestion slows down because the body needs all the energy it can get to deal with the threat.”
However, the problem with these responses, she explains, is that our bodies can’t tell the difference between being frightened and being anxious. “The alarm reaction kicks in automatically if we think we are faced with a threat, whether it is realistic (when we respond with fear) or unrealistic (when we respond with anxiety). The alarm reaction can continue for many weeks if we are anxious about a situation that won’t go away, such as exams. Over time, this tension in our bodies can turn into chronic anxiety, which can make us physically sick.”
Performing Under Pressure
You may tell yourself, “Everyone feels some anxiety around exam time. It’s normal.” This is true to an extent, says Dorland: “A student who is not anxious about exams will probably still feel some level of stimulation or anticipation when an exam is approaching, reflecting a low level of pressure. They may feel ‘keyed up’ and can use this positive energy to their advantage.”
On the other hand, Dorland points out, an exam-anxious student will experience a high level of pressure: “When a student feels a high level of pressure he or she is experiencing the alarm reaction, which will affect him or her physically and psychologically. We all need some low-level pressure before an event such as an exam to perform well, but low-level pressure does not cause anxiety – it helps us achieve our personal best. However, if we experience too much pressure, we become anxious and don’t perform as well. Pressure becomes stress when we feel as though we are no longer able to cope day to day.”
Changing one’s perceptions about an exam or about one’s abilities to perform in an exam can help in the management of the body’s natural response to the things it perceives as a threat. By understanding what triggers you to feel stressed you can begin to identify unconscious perceptions that you hold and identify some coping strategies to help you deal with these safely and quickly, says Dorland, adding, “By taking control you will feel empowered to manage the situation and this will improve your wellbeing and resilience.”