He who has a why… can bear almost any how. ~ Fredrick Nietzsche
Exams are such a stressful time for so many people. Here are some tips that can be applied to any exam, and are particularly relevant to those preparing to sit the Leaving Cert.
1. Be mindful of task/exam when anxiety arises. Remember that the vast majority of people feel anxious going into an exam. Research by Rich and Woolever found most students have similar levels of anxiety. Those who focused on their self-doubts and other factors that were not relevant to the current exam did worse than those who could acknowledge their anxiety and refocus on the exam at hand.
2. Be mindful of your breath as an anchor. While waiting to turn over your exam paper, this is an ideal opportunity to anchor yourself in your breath and your breathing. From a mindfulness perspective as long as we are breathing there is more right with us than wrong with us regardless of whatever your mind might be telling you to the contrary. In times of high anxiety, mindfulness expert Thich Nhat Hanh suggests it can be particularly useful to say the phrases “breathing in, I am aware that I am breathing in” as you breath in and “breathing out, I am aware that I am breathing out” as you breath out to help maintain your focus on your breathing.
3. Be mindful of time. Time management can be an issue for many students. Being mindful of time throughout your exam can greatly improve your chances of answering all questions and giving you the best chance of getting the best grade for you. Psychologically many of us need contextual cues, or reminders, to help us to remember to be mindful of time. One way to do this is to put a little “T” in a circle, or a figure of a clock in the margins of your answer booklet in light pencil. This will serve as a prompt to be mindful of your time.
4. Be mindful of “towards” and “away” moves. It can be very easy to get caught up in judgments such as “right” or “wrong” and “good” or “bad” both during and/or after exams. In the recent book The ACT Matrix, I shared that when we get caught up in these judgments we often find it more difficult to get back to the moment, and what matters. It can be more helpful to acknowledge when we have moved “away” from what is helpful and important to the exam at hand and then channel our time and attention to moving back “towards” where we want to be. This can really minimise the time we spend beating ourselves up and maximise the time we spend focusing on the exams that are important to us.
5. Be mindful of your thoughts. Many of us get hooked by unhelpful thoughts at exam time. It can be useful to identify the prominent themes that arise for you in an exam, for example “exam failure”, “not enough” or “need to repeat”. Then when these themes arise in the exam you can simply note “oh, there’s the exam failure/not enough story again” and refocus on your exam or study for your next exam. Research has shown that this is more helpful than ignoring or getting caught up in the thoughts.
6. Be mindful of compassion. Often we are our own worst critics. In times of high stress we can find it difficult to see the bigger picture. It can be useful to connect to what your older, wiser, kinder 21 year old self would say to you to help you during your leaving cert.
7. Be mindful of what matters. It is very tempting to get completely hooked in the points system and what you “have to do”. Meanwhile you can lose sight of why you are doing the leaving cert in the first place. Many psychologists, such as Dr. Steve Hayes creator of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), have found that if we focus on the reason behind why we are doing what we are doing that greatly helps us to make more moves towards what is important and to get more enjoyment as we do this.
Aisling Curtin is a Counselling Psychologist with the Psychological Society of Ireland (PSI), founder of ACT Now Ireland and WTF Psychology Blogger. You can find out more about her and the workshops she regularly gives in Ireland and internationally at www.actnowireland.com, www.wtfpsych.blogspot.ie, find ACT Now Ireland on Facebook or call ACT Now Ireland at 01-4433307.