How to keep calm during Exam Week

Photo courtesy of Durham College

DC students during an exam

It’s the most wonderful time of the year again. Exam Week.

As students prepare for exams, there’s a mix emotions: excitement, relief, pride – and stress.

Learning to make lifestyle changes that can be applied before exam week and understanding how to cope with stress can make all the difference as to whether exams are completed in a sweat, or not.

From the origins of time, human beings have been faced with stressors that could potentially threaten their lives. As a survival mechanism to ensure survival, humans developed an automatic fight or flight response to overcome dangers in the environment.

“What has happened is our bodies continue to perceive things as threats, even though we are not in life or death situations anymore,” says Beverley Myatt, a Psychology professor at Durham College. Things like exams have been perceived as a threat, as stress, so our bodies react in the same way as it would if we were being chased by a Sabretooth tiger.”

Depending on how the stress is identified, she says stress can be a good or bad thing. Positive stress, or pressure, can be viewed as motivation to meet deadlines. If it is perceived as a significant threat and the fight or flight response is triggered, then it can have adverse effects on our bodies.

Heart disease, sleep disturbances, memory problems, anxiety and depression are some of the ways stress can have manifest in the human body and have a severe impact on our health, according to Myatt. Prolonged negative effects of stress can weaken the immune system, cause high blood pressure and increase risk for heart attacks.

Under stress, the brain releases a chemical, cortisol. This causes a heart rate increase and boosts adrenaline levels which creates cloudy thinking. High levels of adrenaline can keep students up at night, causing difficulty concentrating in class or making it difficult to retain new information on what is being studied.

The first step in managing stress is being able to identify it. Daily discomfort such as sweaty palms, racing heartbeat, headaches, tense muscles, shallow breathing and upset stomach are some of the immediate physical symptoms of stress.

The next step is taking proper care of yourself. Eating a properly balanced diet, getting enough sleep and exercising on a regular basis are important for both, physical and mental health. Regular exercise, or even going outside for a walk, can reduce feelings of anxiety and help maintain an overall feeling of calm, even in the face of distressing events.

Practising mindfulness skills, taking a yoga class every week and doing daily meditation techniques can contribute to a healthy lifestyle and help manage stress before anxious feelings begin. Mindfulness is the ability to be aware of what is happening in the moment, not reflecting on the past or worrying about the future.

For immediate relief to anxiety or panic amidst of exam week, students can learn the method of Passive Muscle Relaxation (PMR). PMR is also effective for coping with stress that keeps you up at night or insomnia. PMR consists of tensing up your muscles as tight as you can, then releasing.

Journaling, doodling, drawing, painting, taking a hot bath or reducing over-stimulation from smart phones, laptops and iPads, cause relaxation.

Before entering the exam room, Myatt recommends taking deep breaths into the lower abdomen can soothe performance anxiety.

“Pulling your breath into the belly button will trigger the opposite of the fight or flight response, the rested digested response. It will help calm the body down before we have to perform,” she says.

Learning coping strategies, such as reframing, can also help students work through negative self-talk of not feeling capable or assuming a poor exam outcome.

Setting smaller, achievable goals throughout the semester can also ensure course work doesn’t pile up before exam time, adding to the pressure of studying.

“Setting the goal of reviewing your notes every week or starting to make study notes at the end of every class. [By exam time], you already have a pile of notes and don’t have to start from scratch,” says Myatt.