Anxiety really does not have to be your enemy: Learn how to manage and channel Yr 12 exam stress to reach your potential
Year 12 exams began last week so I suspect if my blog title caught your attention, you like many of your friends and fellow Year 12’s around the country are doing your best to prepare for your exams while at times feeling completely panicked about the challenge that lies ahead. This challenge is completely manageable when you have an understanding of the benefits of anxiety, as well as strategies and insights to help you channel anxiety during the exam period to achieve your potential.
Why we need anxiety to achieve peak performance
Although you might not like to hear this, I can tell you that this blog isn’t going to tell you how to eliminate anxiety over the coming weeks. I’m sorry. You, like many of the Yr 12 students I have been talking to recently may be really disappointed that I don’t have a magic wand to take it all away. The reality is that even if I did I wouldn’t want to. Why, I can hear you saying? You absolutely need it to perform your best. Some of the most admired top performers in different fields will tell you they still experience anxiety after many years and have achieved their goals by learning how to embrace it and work with it rather than attempt to get rid of it.
This is because anxiety is a healthy response from our bodies in times of challenge, difficulty and stress. Anxiety is simply the sign that our body is marshalling all its resources to focus on the task at hand and face a challenge. It can be seen as energy that we can put to good use rather than something we need to eliminate or control to perform well.
Unfortunately, sometimes our minds become so active we also dwell on ‘what if’ scenarios too, such as ‘what if I fail? ‘What if I let my parents and teacher down?” “What if I don’t get into the course I want to?” That’s when it turns into something that gets in our way and we end up creating unnecessary panic as everything feels threatening and overwhelming rather than manageable.
So while I still have your attention, ask yourself the following questions:
• Does the thought of facing that next exam fill with you with terror?
• Are you terrified your mind will go blank and you will forget everything?
• Are you worried you will never survive the entire exam period as it will just be too much and your results will suffer?
• Do you think if you get anxious you need to shut it down and control it immediately as it will get in your way?
• Do you consistently focus on your potential results and find it hard to focus on the exam preparation?
• Do you feel that you can’t afford to keep exercising, seeing friends, sleeping and having meals as there is no time for that?
If you answered yes to many of these questions, it sounds like you perceive your exams like a terrible threat which leads to panic and makes it harder to study. Anxiety is feeling more like an enemy than a friend that you can work with. It sounds to me like it might be getting in your way of preparation, creating panic and stopping you from living the life you want.
See if you can think of your exams as a challenge… yes it might feel like a big one, but with the right preparation, revision and mental preparation you have the ability to get to the point where you trust you will have the skills needed to reach peak performance. Your mind is a very important part of the equation. You can be technically prepared in every way but if you don’t know how to look after yourself, manage your anxiety, focus attention, it will all feel so much harder.
So here are some strategies or tips I’ve used for my clients, to help them use the ‘force’ of anxiety for good, and not get overwhelmed by it. I’ve captured my 7 tips for getting you through this important period, and they begin by making the most important statement – that any anxiety you are feeling is not only normal, it is healthy and potentially helpful.
7 steps to help achieve your potential in Yr 12 exams
• Anxiety is your friend. Remember that anxiety is a normal part of the exam experience and is simply your body’s way of letting you know that you are ready to tackle this challenge. But here are two crucial insights to help your friendship with anxiety blossom. Firstly, the feelings that anxiety brings to the surface lose their ‘power’ when you are able to simply acknowledge them. Don’t fight them. Just nod your head to feelings and accept them in the moment.
Secondly, if you do some deep breathing, you will find your mind and body tends to be able to make ‘room’ for these feelings so they don’t get in the way of your study preparation. This might sound strange while you’re reading it, but next time you feel a wave of anxiety approaching, find a minute or so to breathe deeply in and around the feelings and sensations in your body.
If your mind starts to judge the feelings as bad, just notice those thoughts and gently let them go like leaves on a stream or clouds in the sky. Whenever judgement appears, panic is not that far away so simply try to remain a little curious about the feelings and then move on with your study or the exam question.
To help with the management of anxiety and to improve focus, consider downloading an app such as Smiling Mind to help you do some brief mindfulness meditations. This will help you respond to anxiety with acceptance and curiosity, improve your concentration and focus and train your mind to deal with distractions more effectively.
• Look after yourself. Make sure you rest, choose good nutrition and take regular breaks from study. There’ll be plenty of time for staying up late and sleeping in late in just a few weeks. Our goal here is to make sure you don’t turn up for an exam and sleep at the desk!
• Stop studying. Yes, you read that correctly. Stop studying from time to time. It is tempting to want to squeeze in study 100% of the time but we know that does not lead to peak performance. Some contact with friends and family helps keep things in balance, recharge the batteries, and allows you to hit each study session or exam afresh. We simply cannot focus 24/7 and need breaks so we come back with renewed motivation and improved concentration. Work out what your best time period is to study for and structure your study routine accordingly, rewarding yourself with chats with friends or a meal break. Remember to fit in some exercise, whatever you enjoy -hit the gym, go for a walk or run, a dance class or a swim to get you out of your mind and into your body.
• Speak to your support team. It is not unusual for some students to buckle this close to the finish line, when every voice inside is crying out to run as far away from exams and study as possible. Instead of dwelling on these overwhelming thoughts, focus on the ‘what’s in it for me’ part of exams. Remember, success here can open doors to freedom, to independence, to career pathways, to travel, the list goes on. Trust me, sharing these thoughts with a caring person or two around you will be profound and help you regain perspective again.
• Develop YOUR pre exam routines. Everyone is different so reflect on past exams and try to plan the last 12-24 hours before an exam so you can set yourself up in a positive way. Remember, this is to help YOU perform and I have found that avoiding conversations with others before exams protects you from distractions. Likewise, avoiding the ‘post mortem’ discussions afterwards can save you from a lot of worry where you hear how others approached questions. Keep it simple and clear so your mind is ready to serve you well under pressure.
• Questions, questions, questions. In the exam, the only thing that matters is the question. Remember to take one question at a time. If you start worrying about that question at the bottom of the page you have no idea how to answer you will lose the opportunity to excel on the question you are trying to complete right now and are confident in. Ignore the student fidgeting around you, ignore that person scribbling at a million miles an hour. This is between you and the question at hand. If you start hearing the ‘I will fail’ story, breathe deeply, notice the thoughts, gently let them go, then return to the question and give it your best shot. You will definitely feel better having written something rather than having tied your mind up in knots.
• It’s not life and death. Yes, of course you want to do your best but I want to share one secret you might not hear from some of the people around you: If you try your best but don’t get the result you were hoping for, it will not be the end of the world. For many of us, trying to remember an English or Maths result ten years down the track is impossible. The best you can do is help yourself do the best you are able to do right now; trying to achieve to impress or compete with others around you is rarely a healthy strategy. As a performance psychologist, I can also tell you that the more we focus on possible outcomes, the more we risk performing poorly. Keep a healthy balanced perspective as much as possible.
If you need further support during this time, don’t forget to ask for help and reach out to someone to talk to, whether it be family, friends, your school counsellor, GP or a psychologist like myself.
Many of us still remember what that time was like and will gladly offer support, encouragement and practical tools.
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