Tapping into confidence to
ease students’ exam nerves
Revising for and sitting exams can raise stress levels for any student. Here, experienced coach Mary Jane Newman offers hints and tips on how to battle through those exam nerves.
Hundreds of students sit their end of school exams each year in New Zealand. That’s a lot of hours spent revising. Most students have put an enormous amount of hours into their revision time to ensure they’re prepared for anything which may come up in each of their exam papers. However, how many students will enter their exam room exhausted and somewhat blurry-eyed, after a potentially sleepless night, worrying, nervous and dreading their mind going blank after all their revising?
Maybe they’ve even taken remedies, medicines or experimented with deep breathing and positive thinking. Nevertheless, they find themselves paralysed by fear and unable to perform to their optimum level. Feeling overwhelmed, some experience trouble sleeping, migraines, headaches, poor appetite and increased anxiety. Through my work with helping students, some of the common problem areas I have found are: pre-test anxiety; procrastination; feeling overwhelmed; perfectionism; and the pressure of expectation.
It’s often accepted in our society that feeling a little nervous before an exam or performance can be helpful, as it helps keep you sharp and focused. However, when nerves turn to fear, this can be a problem. When you’re under stress, your body releases the hormone adrenaline which prepares it for danger.
The body’s fight or flight system has been triggered: you feel sick, your heart starts racing, your muscles feel tense, possibly shaking and your thinking feels muggy. This may be helpful if you are being chased by a tiger – but not if you are trying to be calm and focused for an exam!
Conventional ways of dealing with test anxiety are well documented: deep breathing; be prepared; expect the best; exercise; eat well; and try to sleep. Unfortunately for some people, this advice has little positive effect because of the challenge in dealing with the body’s physical reaction to stress.
The key is being able to release the stress and tension from the mind and body. With the body’s nervous system balanced, students are able to sleep, eat well, take care of themselves and focus on doing their studies. I use a remarkable technique called Emotional Freedom Technique (EFT) or “Tapping”, which can be used to focus on negative emotion and clear it.
EFT is a form of acupuncture but instead of using needles, we tap on the well-established meridian points on the body. When a student experiences the fight or flight symptoms, the solution is in the body’s energy system. Energy (known in various cultures as Chi) flows through the meridians or channels in the body. However, when a person gets nervous, the energy flow is disrupted (e.g. we experience negative thinking, feeling unable to cope, overreacting to situations, self sabotage and the physical symptoms of stress such as sickness or diarrhoea). Using the fingers to stimulate the meridian points on the face and upper body whilst verbalising the issues, sends calming messages to the brain. This helps to clear the disruption and re-balance the body’s nervous system. Incredibly, this releases the stress from the body and people often feel calmer, lighter and more peaceful following a session of tapping. This results in students often expressing an eagerness to get on with their studies. Also, after just a brief introduction, people can use the technique on their own.
I use the following three-step process to make this possible:
• Step one: Identify the problem (fears, self-doubt, anxiety);
• Step two: Clear the interference/ disruption (using EFT);
• Step Three: Re-frame/ Re-program (using performance psychology).
It was the day of Jayden’s first exam. This was his last year at school and he’d spent months preparing for these exams. He wanted to do well and look back with no regrets knowing that he’d done his best. Hours before he felt calm, confident and eager to get on with it. However, when he woke up on that day, his critical inner voice began its work; he began to doubt himself and panic. The body’s fight or flight system had been triggered, his thinking became fuzzy and the creative problem-solving part of his mind felt like it was shutting down – just when he needed it. He was feeling desperate and decided to phone me. We worked on the strongest negative emotions which were the fear of failure, letting himself down and worry that he hadn’t done enough work.
This is really common with students taking exams. There is that logical side of them that knows they have done the work, but when the nerves take hold, logic goes out of the window and no amount of reassurance from friends and family seems to help. We tapped on this negativity for a couple of rounds and Jayden began to feel calmer, lighter and more optimistic. Now his mind was free of the negative, we introduced some positive affirmations: how he would like to feel when taking his exam; calm, excited and seeing this as an opportunity and not a threat. Jayden was thrilled to be able to begin his exams later that day and walk away satisfied that he’d done his best. Tapping gives you the opportunity to make the change you need.
When I first spoke to Jayden his mind was full of fear and doubt. He of course wanted to feel calm, positive and confident, but felt helpless. Using EFT we were able to start exactly where Jayden was with his emotions and remove the negative feelings and sensations. Then his mind was ready to fully experience the benefits of positive thinking. If you are searching for the answer to pre-test anxiety and want to be able to sit exams full of confidence and without fear, EFT may sound a little different, but I’ve found initial concerns are soon forgotten as the nerves start to fade. Give it a try – you’ve nothing to lose but your fears!
Mary Jane Newman works with people from many backgrounds to overcome many challenges such as anxiety, stress, performance nerves, health issues and concerns, blocks to success, fears and phobias and addictions. Contact her at the Herbal Dispensary on Hills Road in Christchurch for a free 15 minute chat to discuss how she can help you further.