Whether you're cramming for the exam, fighting sweaty palms and ringing ears during it, or obsessively going over questions you weren't quite sure about afterwards (and maybe wondering if you could somehow hack into your professor's files and get away with changing them), stress is a pervasive part of academic life.
Check out these four tips to cut down on exam stress — even if your test is tomorrow morning:
1. Switch your language from "have to" to "choose to."
When you put someone in a fight-or-flight situation, there's no doubt she'll feel stress. Removing someone’s ability to choose will almost inevitably trigger fear or anxiety. When this happens to you, you may feel like an animal caught in a trap. You can't exactly think reasonably and take stock of your options and plans. You're stuck, seemingly with very few directions to turn.
When we use language that involves the phrase "have to," we're unwittingly triggering our own anxieties and stresses — just like being trapped. Instead, you should be truthful with yourself: The fact is, you don't have to take this test. You could very easily sleep in tomorrow and skip it.
But you've chosen to be in this class. You've chosen to work hard and absorb as much material as you can (even if you're also balancing work, a social life, and other harrowing classes). You've opted to pursue goals that will satisfy you — a decent grade, a good semester, and a successful (and very satisfying) graduation. In reality, you are not a rat in a cage; you've chosen this challenging path in hopes that you’ll be able to overcome difficult obstacles.
This mental shift is also immensely empowering in that it takes you out of feeling like a victim ("everything bad always happens to me") and enables you to think like a creator, someone who calls the shots in her own life. You need to decide that you're on the path to greatness. It feels a lot better (and a lot less stressful) to choose to ace a test than to tell yourself you have to take it.
2. Realize that some stress can be awesome.
Psychologists have suggested that how you think about stress influences the ways in which it affects you. One recent study, whose results were published in the medical journal Health Psychology, indicates that individuals who believe that “stress affects their health and reported a large amount of stress” stand an increased risk of dying early. Those who reported low amounts of stress — or who did not believe that stress affected their health — experienced no increased risk of negative outcomes.
On the other hand, it is important to realize that some stress can be good for you. Another study, this one published in the online journal eLife, proposes that short-term stress, even when acute, may help improve academic performance. In the words of one of its authors, a professor of integrative biology at the University of California, Berkeley, “Some amounts of stress are good to push you just to the level of optimal alertness [and] behavioral and cognitive performance.”
While it may be beneficial to allow yourself to experience a bit of stress from time to time, it’s not a good idea to make a habit of it.
3. Believe you'll do well — and do the work to back it up.
If negative beliefs can cause study participants to die earlier than those with more positive outlooks, why not experiment with your own disposition? If you've truly done your best, then believe in yourself and in your ability to succeed on a test. And if it's weeks away and you're studying your heart out, believe you'll do great. But be sure to put in the time necessary to make your beliefs a reality.
Many practitioners believe that meditation may increase the brain’s capacity to learn, especially if meditation is practiced over time. Even if you've never tried it before and even if you think it's for the birds (who probably don’t have the mental capacity to meditate), it might be worth a shot. This is especially true if you’re at wit’s end with a deadline or a looming test.
An article in Psychology Today written by Rebecca Gladding, an instructor at UCLA, suggests that meditation can change brain chemistry (and reduce stress) in measurable ways. Remarkably, this may happen in just one session. Gladding, an expert on depression and anxiety, explains that meditation affects the prefrontal cortex (the part of the brain that governs personality, decision-making, and social behaviors) and the amygdala (the part of the brain that regulates fear and anxiety). As we meditate, her research seems to indicate, neural pathways between the prefrontal cortex and the amygdala wither, which in turn results in decreased anxiety and stress about decisions.
So, if you're reading this on your smartphone on the way to a final exam, take a moment to stop, breathe in, breathe out, and notice your thoughts for 60 seconds. Sure, some of them may be, "I look silly standing on these steps going nowhere," or, "This is dumb, I need to get to class," or, "I'm going to fail this, I just know it." But simply being aware of these thoughts puts you in a unique, Superman-like position — one above the chaos happening in your brain — that you didn’t have access to before. Even if you don't feel great about the test, wouldn't it be fun to feel like Superman walking in?
Follow this link for more tips and advice about test-taking strategies.