In preparation for Mental Health Awareness Week 2024 we will give you all the information you need to help calm the stress and anxiety caused by exams, tests, performances and assessments.
Exams, tests and performances and their assessments naturally bring about some degree of anxiety and stress. It’s the body’s way of preparing you, but too much over a long period of time, has a detrimental effect on our minds and bodies. When we are not confident, we tend to be overly self-critical and therefore prone to additional stress and anxiety. The stress hormone, cortisol, is public enemy number one because it interferes with learning and memory.
Anxiety, tension, stress, stage fright are all aspects of mental illness and come in various guises and intensity. Cortisol is released in response to fear, anxiety and stress by the adrenal gland (which produces adrenaline / epinephrine) and is part of our flight and fight mechanism. Let’s look at some ways we can help ourselves reduce the cortisol running riot in our bodies. We’ll look at:
Have a well-balanced diet. It’s very easy to snack on comfort foods – milk chocolates and biscuits for that sugar fix, but poor diet increases anxiety.
Keep well hydrated with water
Magnesium rich foods – Whole Grains (quinoa, buckwheat, wheat, oats, barley), Leafy Greens (spinach etc), Quinoa, Nuts (almonds, cashews, peanuts), DARK chocolate, Avocados, Tofu, Seeds (hemp, pumpkin, sesame), Fatty Fish (salmon, mackerel, halibut), Bananas
Zinc rich foods – Meat, Shellfish, Legumes (chickpeas, lentils and beans), Seeds (hemp, pumpkin, sesame), Nuts (almonds, cashews, peanuts), Dairy, Eggs, Whole Grains, DARK chocolate
Obvious, isn’t it? If you’re well prepared rather than cramming last thing, it’ll keep nerves at a reasonable level, desired to help you perform at your best.
Learn as much as you can about the format and expectations for the exam
Make and keep an organised study schedule early on
Take good notes
Focus on success, picture yourself celebrating your great achievement, feel the buzz
Be honest and realistic with yourself about expectations
Don’t over study
Get enough sleep
This is obvious too, right? Sleep is not just a requirement for success but also necessary for good health. A lack of sleep carries a number of negatives – nervousness, depression, anxiety, memory problems, diminished critical thinking skills. Poor sleep = anxious student.
Bathing with Epsom Salt
Warm baths, if you can manage, rather than a shower, lightens daily stresses. Mixed with Epsom Salt is great for pre-exam nerves. Epsom Salt contains Magnesium Sulfate, which helps to calm and relax. Additionally, Magnesium is absorbed through the skin and the Sulfate in the salt can help with pain and inflammation, lessens stress and anxiety, lowers blood pressure and relieves minor aches and pains.
Aromatherapy can be used through a number of applications such as inhalation, topical and even oral. The most popular method of aromatherapy is through the breathing in of essential oils, which are often combined with natural scents. Over longer periods, studies show, aromatherapy is most effective. If you get nervous about exams and want to reduce stress and anxiety, aromatherapy is a natural way of achieving greater calm. The following are some of the most common and popular essential oils and aromatherapy scents. Check they’re not synthetic smells though.
Lemon or Yuzu
Practise deep, abdominal breathing
Stress and anxiety affects our breathing patterns and we tend to breathe shallow and quickly from the upper part of the body.
Practise lying down first in supine (legs outstretched) or semi-supine (knees bent). Deep, slow breathing in through the nose and sighing out through the mouth. Remember not to engage those core muscles!
Put one hand on tummy and the other on your chest – then breathing in (CALM), the tummy goes out (the chest doesn’t and the shoulders shouldn’t lift). The tummy returns to rest when we sigh out (STRESS), so your hand will move inwards.
Once you’ve mastered this exercise lying down, practise sitting upright in a chair (legs uncrossed and feet planted on floor or on books, if you’re legs are dangling! lol). This will help when nerves rear their ugly heads whilst reading the exam paper.
Next practise standing so that you can take control before you go into your exam.
Sighing out when deep breathing:
instantly reduces tension by raising blood carbon dioxide level
Interrupts thoughts that create tension and nervousness
points our attention elsewhere
Stretching to relax
Stretching can help reduce stress and anxiety, especially when hunched over those books and the computer. Take time to get off your butt to move around and get that breath going.
When sitting and standing it’s important to have good posture as it reduces stress and anxiety. Why? Because if we’re slumping or have legs crossed when sitting, we are reducing the area for the lungs to expand properly for that deep effective, calming breath. Bad posture causes our breathing to be more shallow and more rapid. Shallow, rapid breathing can induce the “fight or flight” reflex, which is important for emergency situations. However, always being in emergency mode due to poor posture is bad for our bodies. Good posture affects one’s self-perception and attitude. It expresses a good self-image. This outward expression reflects back upon the inner personality, helping us to believe inwardly what is outwardly being expressed.
If you’re having pre-exam anxiety, make a quick check on your posture. You may find that adjusting your posture may help decrease your nervousness.
Time for tea?
A warm cup of herbal tea may help you settle nerves frazzled by study and exam anxiety. The warmth of the liquid, the patient process of sipping and the effects of the tea itself, work together to calm. Some are even great to help you sleep better.
Lemon Balm tea
Passion Flower tea
Think and speak positively
Project yourself into the future, after your exams and performance, see yourself celebrating your achievements. Our life is shaped by the mind so if you think positively, you will become positive and hold yourself upright. If you believe you can do something, it’s true. Always believe in yourself and if your results and outcomes aren’t what you expected, give yourself feedback, reassess and put different strategies in place for a more positive outcome.
Remember, FAIL means: