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