Exam season: Preparing for stressful situations

Qualche consiglio per affrontare lo stress degli esami


Il termine mindfulness fa riferimento ad uno stato di consapevolezza e attenzione consapevole al momento presente che viene osservato senza giudizio, con curiosità e con compassione.
In un contesto scolastico, la mindfulness può aiutare gli studenti a regolare lo stress che circonda la pressione degli esami.

by Amy Malloy

Exam season can feel really stressful, both for students and for teachers. In this article, we’ll look at what is going on in the brain to cause exam stress and how we can use simple everyday habits to manage and lessen its effects.

Let’s start with the stress response itself

The human brain has evolved unrecognisably since its earliest forms, but it is still contains a core primitive area that controls our nervous system and our stress response. In the simplest terms, when we perceive a threat, our stress response is activated, and we either fight or run away. If it is too overwhelming, we tip over into freeze mode: ‘playing dead’. This is how we have functioned since physical safety and survival was our sole concern as a species, and it is a truly physical response – the brain doesn’t get the chance to be rational. The breath shortens, our muscles get ready to respond, our heart rate quickens, and our pupils get bigger.

From an evolutionary point of view, the fact that we still use this stress response means it must work. If we survive a threat, our genes then get passed on to the next generation: Darwin’s theory of survival of the fittest. Our brains also like to be efficient – there is no point inventing the wheel each time, otherwise we wouldn’t have evolved to the advanced functioning that we have today. So once we have experienced a stressful situation, the brain will try to predict that the same is going to happen in future, and fast-track down that same brain pathway on subsequent occasions to try to keep us safe. Therefore, this means that over thousands of years the human brain has developed a negative bias: our brains are more likely to notice and look for negative situations and threats with a view to keeping us safe, than they are to notice positive situations1. In short, we have evolved to apply this same response to comparatively less threatening situations and future threats, such as what might happen in an exam.

Why do we do this?

More recently in the evolution timeline, humans developed more sophisticated functioning in the brain, which allowed us to strategize, reason and plan. This executive functioning has allowed us to become a more advanced species, because we can respond to imagined and previously known threats too and be prepared in advance. This is bad news for exam stress, because it means we can imagine the stress we might expect to feel, and we can try to predict bad things happening so we are prepared and safe. Helpful for actual threats to our survival, like sabre tooth tigers. Not so helpful when we aren’t actually in danger, and when we need our creative and language functions to be in full working order.

Using our advanced brain skills to calm our inner caveman

Remember we said stress was a physical response? Creativity and language (core skills needed for a language exam) need our executive functions to be working. The stress response mode still cuts off these more advanced functions by downgrading any brain function we don’t desperately need to escape threat (i.e. we don’t need to remember verb conjugations when escaping danger). This is difficult when in an ELT context, because it is exactly what we are being measured on in exams.

However, believe it or not, this functioning is also good news for handling exam stress.
Thanks to these more advanced brain functions, we can learn to be cleverer than our caveman brain. We can train up the more advanced functions in our brain (such as the prefrontal cortex – the ‘watchtower’) to notice and observe the physical stress triggers and remind our brain that we are safe instead. Then we can reinforce more positive pathways to encourage happy hormones and regulate ourselves to a more balanced state. The more regulated our nervous system is on a daily basis, the more ‘stretchy’ it is. In other words, it finds it easier to respond to stress and bounce back again without spiralling into panic. It’s more resilient.

How can we do that?

Our brains work like a muscle, just like muscles elsewhere in our bodies. You wouldn’t turn up to run a marathon without training your muscles first. So there’s a lot we can do to make our brains as ready as possible to tackle a stressful situation before the event, not just during it.

We need to approach stress preparation from two directions: bottom up (body to brain) and top down (brain to body). This is because of a key nerve at the centre of our nervous system: the vagus nerve. It is responsible for transporting messages about stress and safety between the body (the digestive system upwards) and the brain. However, whilst 80% of the information moves upwards from body to brain, only 20% of the information is travelling downwards from brain to body2. When we are in the stress response, the vagus nerve is only listening to the body – we need to help the brain and the body reconnect again.
Mindfulness, in particular, is a very powerful tool because it not only works on regulating our breathing (body telling brain it’s safe: bottom-up regulation), it also strengthens our self-observation via the watchtower (brain telling body it’s safe: top-down regulation).

What we can do during the revision period (hint: this is actually the most important bit):
Humans like balance – our system is always seeking balance and regulation. The more you can do ahead of time as frequent habits, the easier your nervous system will find it to respond healthily to and bounce back from stress when the time comes.

• Eat regular meals and get regular sleep with the same bedtime and wake up time every day to help your nervous system feel safe.
• Avoid social media use – social media platforms are designed to hack into our natural psychology and make money from our lack of focus and natural draw to negative and emotional news. By avoiding using it, you’ll avoid unnecessary stress triggers and keep that balance in your brain.
• Regular exercise activates endorphins (happy hormones), which when activated little and often, can counteract the negative bias and build resilience to stress.
• Practice mindfulness of breath through meditation or yoga: regular, balanced breath means a regulated, stretchy nervous system able to deal with stress more easily, whilst also strengthening the watchtower.
• Get creative: Strengthen the creative area of the brain by writing a journal or doodling every day.

What we can do on the day of the exam (or in the exam itself):

• Breathing: Actively communicate to the nervous system that you are safe, by lengthening your exhale as you breathe. It can be helpful to count as you breathe to give your mind something to focus on. Try the following: in for 3, pause for 1, out for 6, pause for 1. Continue this pattern as long as you need until you feel a little calmer.
• Get into body: Reconnect your brain and your body by actively focusing on your 5 senses. Notice: 5 things you can see; close your eyes and notice 4 things you can feel/touch; 3 things you can hear; 2 things you can smell; 1 thing you can taste.
• Physically discharge stress: jumping up and down or dancing to your favourite song (also helps with creating happy hormones like endorphins)
• Open your creative flow tap: write anything on a scrap piece of paper – even writing “hello my name is ___ and I’m in the exam and this is one English word I know and this is another one and…” then come back to the question. It connects the body back to the brain by focusing on tapping of keys or movement of the pen, but also opens the tap to our creative flow and aids memory and language production.

What we can do after the exam:

• Physically discharge the stress from the exam: run, dance, shake your arms and legs.
• Drink lots of water to rehydrate and eat a good meal.
• Write down 3 things that went well about the exam.
• Write down 1 thing you’ll do next time to improve something that went less well.
• Fold up the piece of paper, put it away, and do something that you enjoy.

By preparing before the exam situation, you will likely find that the strategies you used beforehand help you in the exam itself, or even that you don’t need support at all in the exam. Remember: we don’t run a marathon on no training, so let’s train up our nervous system to feel balanced, stretchy and ready to handle the ups and downs of a stressful situation. Good luck!

Not all emotions are created equal: The negativity bias in social-emotional development >>
2. Top-Down and Bottom-Up Mechanisms in Mind-Body Medicine >>



Amy Malloy: con il suo lavoro mira a semplificare l'accesso al benessere attraverso la comunicazione e l'insegnamento. Con un ampio background nell'editoria ELT, è un'insegnante di yoga e mindfulness, editor, scrittrice, 'scarabocchiatrice' e designer.

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