Exam season is here once again and no matter how prepared you feel, those moments before you pick up your pen and turn the paper over, can be pretty nerve-wracking.
Here we’re delighted to share with you a very simple process from Mandy Pearson, an accredited and skilled psychotherapist, NLP trainer, mindfulness and meditation teacher, consultant and coach, that you can use in the moments before an exam to help calm you down.
Beating exam nerves
It’s 5 minutes before an exam and the tension is mounting. To feel better, the first thing you need to know is that nerves at this stage are entirely normal. During the millions of years we spent roaming the savannah, human nervous systems became hard-wired to react to danger with a 'fight or flight ' response. We might be sophisticated creatures with iPhones and lattes now, but your body's response to danger, whether real (lion) or perceived (exam) is the same; it gets primed for action - heart races, blood pressure increases and breathing rate speeds up. While this is incredibly helpful if you're face to face with a lion, it's a bit less helpful if you have to go into an exam and think straight.
So how can you help yourself to reverse this process, gather your wits and be the most confident and calm to give it your best? The answer lies in jamming the worry circuits in the brain that are causing the stress. Brain imaging has shown that positive and negative emotions are polarized on opposite sides of the prefrontal cortex (PFC). The right side produces negative, inhibiting feelings like worry, while the left causes positive, outward-reaching emotions.
Research has shown that it is possible to cause a switch from right to left by doing activities that block right PFC activity (over-thinking) and instead stimulate the left. One way you can do this right now is by literally ‘coming to your senses’ by attending to momentary sensations. This brings you straight into the present moment and away from the monkey chatter of the right PFC, so it scrambles those worry circuits and improves your sense of wellbeing. Ideally you practice this over time and become a master at switching, by practicing meditation or yoga or some form of mindfulness but a good time to start is always now. The great news is while you're attending to what you can see, hear and feel in the moment, you cannot overthink – your brain can't do both at the same time.
There are many ways to do this, and you don't need anything other than yourself. Your body is a wonderful anchor to bring you into the now. So as you're standing, waiting to go into that exam room, try this one simple process to activate your senses of seeing, hearing and feeling.
Stand up straight, raise yourself to your full height, and take a deep (but quiet) breath into your belly through your nose. The natural tendency when in fear is to make yourself small, which in turn makes you feel small. To counteract this, deliberately make yourself big and the mind will then follow the body and make you feel bigger. So assume the superwoman/ man stance (or the best you can do in public) and you'll begin to feel more confident and in control straight away. Taking some big deep breaths as you do this begins to restore your body to calm and activate the 'rest and digest' arm of the nervous system – the parasympathetic, which counteracts fight or flight.
As you're standing there, look up. As you look up, you move out of your feelings and thoughts and into your visual sense – so you begin to zap those worry circuits and things actually begin to look up. If you can see something pleasant like the sky or trees, then watch or count clouds or treetops. If not, count ceiling tiles or lights, or focus on anything pretty, as intently as you can. Look at it closely as an artist would if they were going to paint it. Notice the colours, shapes, shadows and light.
Listen intently to external sounds rather than the chatter in your mind. You could plug in and listen to some uplifting music or an inspiring podcast. This immediately interrupts your worries and changes the channel to something more pleasant.
Put your right hand on your left shoulder and give it a massage. Tune into the sensations. Notice any tension and really focus on how it feels. Just by attending to the sensations they may start to change and help you relax. Repeat the other side.
And now you're ready to go in and ace it.
Thank you for taking the time to share this process with us Mandy!
About Mandy Pearson
Mandy Pearson MA (Hons), is an accredited and skilled NLP Trainer, Mindfulness and Meditation Teacher, Consultant and Coach. She has studied psychology from many different perspectives, firstly at university as part of her Masters Degree followed by extensive training in Counselling, Clinical Psychotherapy, Hypnotherapy, Coaching and NLP over 20 years. As a Reiki Master Teacher and Spiritual Development Coach she integrates the practice of mindfulness into all aspects of her work. As the Director of Sea Star Training & Head of Leadership at 6th Door Training Ltd she is known as ‘the happiness consultant’ delivering NLP and Mindfulness based Communications trainings and corporate, organisational and one to one Mindful leadership training & coaching throughout the country. She lives in Southport with her family & Tibetan terriers and likes to start every day with a mindful dog walk in the sandhills. www.seastartraining.co.uk & www.6thdoor.com