Beyond butterflies

Campus Life, Health

Clock IconWhat to do when almost anything sounds better than writing an exam

Remember midterms? For most people, getting past that first university test-writing experience was a huge relief. If that isn’t you, and the thought of doing it all over again with final exam season on the horizon makes you feel ill, Tory Pino, a counsellor with Wellness and Psychological Services says you might want to begin by asking yourself a couple of questions.

How anxious is too anxious?

A little bit of anxiety going into an exam is perfectly normal and actually a good thing, according to Tory. “Exams are high-stress situations. Having a few butterflies in your stomach and a bit of adrenaline in your body can help you perform better.”

But there is a threshold. “As anxiety starts to increase, there’s a point at which it becomes detrimental,” he explains. Like when your mind goes blank and you can’t remember answers to questions you knew two hours earlier, or when the butterflies in your stomach want out so desperately you end up throwing up in a garbage can, or when every fibre of your being is telling you to pick up and run. Then, Tory says, it’s time to get help from a counsellor.

Is the anxiety expected or unexpected?

This is the time for brutal honestly. Is the anxiety you’re feeling actually warranted? “If you’re not prepared and didn’t put the work you needed to into studying, then anxiety is probably a normal and natural consequence of not being ready,” says Tory. “Addressing the problem, in this case, means things like setting a schedule and sticking to it, going to classes, reading your textbook effectively and working on memorization techniques.” 


Are you actually studying?

strong> Read more about how to make sure you're hitting the target when you're hitting the books




But if you really did study, went to classes, ate well, didn’t overindulge in caffeine and had a good night’s sleep before the exam, and you’re still finding yourself in a situation where feelings of anxiety are taking over, then that’s unexpected anxiety and Tory has some strategies that might help:

1. Don’t fight it

“What we resist persists,” says Tory. “Notice how you’re feeling and acknowledge it. You’re feeling nervous because this test matters. Knowing those feelings are there won’t make them go away, but it can help keep them from escalating.”

2. Look for perspective

Tory says that it’s really common for students going into an exam to tell themselves, “If I don’t pass this, it’s going to be a disaster.” That kind of thinking really piles on the pressure.

“If you’re in a four-year program, you’re could write up to 100 exams during the course of earning your degree,” he says. “A single exam is going to be worth a tiny part of your total GPA and likely won’t make or break your entire university career. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t study or care about your results, but taking your exams one at a time can help put things into perspective.”

3. Lose the negative self-talk

What's going on inside your head during the days, hours and moments before you sit down at the desk to write your exam?

“I often talk to students who spend a lot of time telling themselves, ‘I’m going to fail this exam,’ ‘this is going to be really hard’ or ‘this is going to be terrible,’” says Tory. “It might not seem like a big deal, but repeatedly thinking these things can intensify anxiety.”

Try identifying negative thoughts and challenging them. “You don’t know you’re going to fail this exam,” says Tory. “Remind yourself about the preparation you’ve done and think about what you do know.”

4. Stop comparing yourself to everyone else

It might seem like everyone else has got this, but you don’t really know how other people have prepared or the situations they are in—and it doesn’t really matter.

“Just because someone is leaving early doesn’t mean they aced the exam,” says Tory. “You’ll be much better off if you focus on yourself and your own process.”

5. Learn how to relax

There are tons of YouTube videos out there that can guide you through relaxation techniques, including progressive or passive muscle relaxation, and guided imagery, but Tory says that one of the easiest ways to relax before or during an exam is to breathe.

“If you notice that your heart rate is elevated and your breathing is shallow, you might want to try some deep breathing,” says Tory. “Instead of taking two- or three-second breaths, breathe in for five seconds through your nose and out for five seconds through your mouth.”

But don’t wait until you’re in an exam to give this a try. “Relaxation skills are just that – skills. So you need to practice. Make it part of your exam preparation process and spend a few minutes a day practicing whichever method you choose.”

When all these things don’t work

If nothing seems to help, and the anxiety just seems too much to bear, it’s time to get help.

Counsellors in Wellness and Psychological Services meet students in this situation all the time and Services to Students with Disabilities (SSD) offers tools for students who have been diagnosed with anxiety. The two service areas often work back and forth to help students.

“Some students come to us with a diagnosis of anxiety from high school or another post-secondary institution and have all the documentation they need,” says Catherine Brown, a learning specialist with SSD. “Others just know that something isn’t right—that they’re working much harder than their classmates, or that the way they feel before or during an exam is more than what other people feel.”

Once a student has a confirmed diagnosis of generalized or social anxiety, or another learning issue like attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) or slower processing speed—things that can cause a lot of anxiety when it comes to exams—SSD steps in to help.

“Two of the main things we offer are a separate setting for students writing exams and extra time,” says Catherine. “For a lot of students, knowing they can write in a smaller setting with students who are not in the same class or that they are going to have enough time to demonstrate what they actually know—not their ability to answer a certain number of questions in a specific timeframe—is exactly what they need.”

Those changes may sound small, but Catherine says they can make a big difference. “I’ve talked to lots of students who saw their grades go up significantly—sometimes 20 or 30 per cent—when the barriers to having them show exactly what they know came down.”

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Changing Minds Footer Image - 3 DotsThis story is part of Changing Minds: Creating a healthy campus – an initiative that makes mental health a priority. The program connects training opportunities, support services, resources and stories from real people across the MacEwan University community.

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