Coping With Exam Stress (Exam Blackout)

Exam Stress

Exam stress sucks. Excuse the bluntness, but as I tested different openers, no words rang as true as those. It sucks. Coping with it starts before you even feel it. However, before we get into all that, allow me to paint a picture to remind you just how bad it can be.

You’re sitting at the desk with your exam number, staring at the clock ticking tirelessly. The test papers thud against your table. You leaf through the seemingly infinite pages. They brim with terrifying questions and your pulse increases. Suddenly, you feel like a fist-sized ball of brass besieges your stomach. Your clenching chest reminds you that you’ve neglected to breathe. Breathe, you tell yourself. Breathe! Sweat trickles down your back, and that brass ball in your gut starts glowing red-hot. You recognise the questions, but why can’t you remember the answers? The sound of your peers’ pens scribbling on paper painfully highlights your paralysis. You revised this yesterday. The clock is ticking too fast. Wait, when did you last breathe? Breathe!

Whew… that sucked. Now that we have felt how painful it was to imagine that scenario, what can we do so that we never have to live it?

Dealing with Exam Stress Starts Before the Exam

As always, prevention is better than cure. Under preparation is likely the chief cause of exam stress. Unfortunately, the only way around this is by starting ahead of time. Having a tutor is a great way to keep yourself on track and accountable. We offer high-quality tuition and guidance from tutors who know how to help you through things like these.

The cause is, however, only sometimes due to tardiness. Sometimes, you have prepared all you could and are still blank when it counts. In that case, the cause that needs addressing is most likely unrelated to the content. You may be under a lot of pressure, either from yourself or external sources. Perhaps you feel like you have to do well. In that case, it is only natural that your brain enters a fight-or-flight state as it perceives the exam as a threat to your safety. Remind yourself that no matter how this exam goes, life goes on. Even if you depend on high grades for uni admissions, I promise you that life will go on even if you don’t get those grades.

If you feel that this exam stress is genuinely debilitating, I strongly encourage you to talk with someone about it. Friends, family, or even professionals can be great resources—use them!

Coping with Exam Stress in the Moment

Okay, but what if you are in that situation where you’re about to blank on your test? What can you do when sitting an exam and your exam stress is getting to you? Take a moment to stop. Block out the noise of other people writing for a second, and breathe. Breathe in, acknowledge your stress, acknowledge how your body feels, and exhale. Don’t try to judge the sensation, don’t try to stop it. Just recognise that it’s there. Do that for a few breaths.

Now that you have accepted your state, you can start with a question you know the answer to. It doesn’t matter if it’s a simple one-mark question. Don’t get bogged down on the questions that trigger this stress response; get back to them when you have done all the easy questions.

Take every question one small step at a time, and don’t be intimidated that you cannot see the big picture right as you start a question. It might come once you get going, it might not, and that’s okay.

Post-Exam Lessons to Learn

Once you have completed your exam, you have a unique opportunity for growth. Take a second to reflect on how it went, what went wrong, and why. You should also acknowledge what went right, so you don’t lose track of the fact that there are plenty of things which you rock at! Exams are incredibly instructive moments, especially mocks, so take them as just that! Now you know what to do for the next exam. You should be proud of yourself for learning, especially if it’s from what might feel like a defeat. 

If you are a nerd like me and are curious why we black out during exams in the first place, check out this fascinating article by Synaptic Potential.

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