Does the word exam give you palpitations?
Does the phrase ‘you have five minutes remaining’ make you feel like you’re going to throw up?
Do results day consist of flashbacks of everything you did wrong and every single flop moment you’ve had ever?
Congratulations. You are perfectly normal.
But why do we get anxious at all? Well it’s scientifically speaking a very straightforward concept. Your body and brain decide that exams are a life and death situation and therefore you must prepare to, well, run. Except the exam is not a predator. You’re in the exam hall not the jungle and the examiner is not your enemy. Awkward? Yes, very. The problem is back when humans were hunter-gatherers and their lives were endangered on a daily basis, this response of anxiety, stress and fight/ flight mode was the difference between survival and extinction. It’s survival of the fittest and you have only your ancestors to thank for that ultra sensitive anxiety response you get every time an exam comes around.
What started off as a helpful mechanism for survival and adaption is somewhat redundant in today’s day and age. We still need small amounts of stress and anxiety or we’d just fall asleep all the time and be bored out of our minds.
However, our brain hasn’t quite caught up with the idea that an angry boss can’t actually kill us. An exam won’t get up and bite and our results are just numbers on a sheet which don’t have the ability to cause us any physical harm.
So why does our body respond in such a physical manner? Like I said, it’s preparing you to run away. Get away from the angry boss and get to a safe place. This is what’s going on in your body:
- The limbic cortex and cerebral cortex have sensory and emotional inputs which send signals of distress to the hypothalamus in the brain.
- Hypothalamus gets hyper-excited and sends lots of signals to your sympathetic nervous system to activate it.
- So the heart beats faster and harder to pump blood around your muscles so you can run away quicker. This is what makes you hot and sweaty.
- The pupils become enlarged so you can *ahem* see your ‘enemy’ better
- Blood gets redirected from the gut to your muscles which need more oxygen if you are planning on running.
Once the stimulus (the predator, the examiner, the exam, the boss… etc.) has gone, your symptoms go away too.
Well this is all well and good and most of us can deal with the slight sweating and increased heart rate just fine. But some of us start responding like this to normal every day things. A person wearing red. A dog barking half way across the street. The weather changing abruptly. This is when our ability to stress our own bodies is no longer a normal physiological response. When it starts interfering with day to day activities is when anxiety becomes anxiety disorder and stress becomes stress disorder. And it’s frightening.
I just wanted to take a moment to come back to my most recent exam. It was a practical and it required a lot of fiddling with bottle lids and gloves etc. I was nervous, yes, but not stressed. I was fairly confident. But then I realised that I was running out of time. I squashed my fears and carried on. But somehow my silly little limbic system (the fear and emotion centre) picked up on my stray thought of worry and told my hypothalamus to trigger the fight/ flight response. That’s when I noticed that my hands were shaking uncontrollably. To the point that I had to put the bottle back down because I was scared I’d drop it (and I did just 10 seconds after!)
I don’t have anxiety disorder. What I’ve described above is a very common occurrence for people. But it’s just as inconvenient and problematic as having a disorder might be. I’ve almost conditioned myself to freak out every time I notice my hands shaking. For me that is the trigger – evidence that I’m scared. And it’s that trigger that everybody who gets nervous before exams must try and overcome.
Fearing the fact that I will be scared put me in a catch-22 scenario. Where I’m scared about being scared and then get scared about the fact I AM scared…I’m certainly getting better at coping and yes, one of my fall backs is smiling like a clown at anyone and everyone. Pathological smiling is probably a thing. No wonder people avoid eye contact with me…
On a serious note, there are many things you can do if you too experience stress and anxiety before or during situations like exams. Here are a few things which have helped me over the years:
- drinking green tea
- watching re-reruns of cartoons I liked as a child
- reading old books that are dull as dull can be
- going away from social media
- listening to white noise before bed! (you tube has some fantastic 10-hour long videos which you can listen to as you fall asleep)
- counting slowly from 1 to 100 in as many languages as you know
Obviously if you think you have a disorder, the above isn’t going to cut it and you must speak to a professional. Don’t let anxiety spoil who you are!
P.S: I’ve finished my exams! I have a lot of TV shows to catch up on…