Most of us have experienced the chilling feeling of going into an exam and our mind going blank. This is what we call a 'freeze' response which is part of our body's system to protect us when we feel threatened. "We may feel anxious, pumped up, unable to relax and struggle to focus and the freeze response kicks in," says Professor Ewan Gillon, counselling psychologist and clinical director of First Psychology. Here are some of Ewan's tips for coping with mind blanks and exam/test anxiety.
Leading up to the exam
Prepare by doing practice questions and plans. This will make the exam situation feel more familiar and less anxiety provoking. Learn how to recognise what the question is asking for and how to formulate a plan to tackle the question. It's amazing how many people fail exams because they waffled about something insignificant rather than answering the question. Give yourself 5 minutes' planning time for each question so that you can plan what you are going to cover in your answer.
Before the exam – on the day
Give yourself plenty of time to get organised. Ensure you have everything you need, get to bed on time the night before so you have a good sleep, have a good breakfast, hydrate and get there on time! Don't stress yourself out by being late. It does not give you a good start to your exam and can lead you to panic.
During the exam
Get settled and organised and listen to any instructions you are given before the exam. Turn over the paper when you are instructed to do so. You may feel anxious and think that you can't answer any of the questions. This is not unusual and it won't be true. Take 15-20 deep breaths while thinking about something that makes you feel happy and relaxed. You could think of your favourite calm place, a programme you like to watch, some of your favourite music, etc. Then return to the paper and read the questions carefully. Decide what you are going to answer and in what order. It's always best to get started with the easiest questions first to get your mind into gear and feeling a bit less stressed. Leave the hardest to last, but ensure you leave enough time to attempt them.
Once you have decided what you're going to do first, write down some of the words that you remember about the topic. Then read the question again and use the words and anything else that springs to mind to write a plan. Then get writing!
It can be easy to get sidetracked when in the exam room. Seeing other people working away with apparently no worries can be daunting and anxiety provoking. Remember, you do not have any idea what is going on in their heads or the quality of their writing. Try to focus on your own experience and let other people get on with theirs.
If you have another mind blank, do the breathing trick again and try to identify four words that can help you start your plan. More will come to you as you start planning.
After the exam
It's tempting when you're on exam leave, to hardly emerge from your room. Make a real effort to do something to get out and about from time to time. Plan short and long breaks and write them in your diary. Some examples are: take a walk or a cycle, go to the gym, get a coffee with a friend, meet up with a group of friends, get your hair cut, etc.
Your brain cannot work tirelessly for hours at a time. Break times not only allow your brain a chance to digest the information that you have been working on but they also provide a sense of perspective and help you keep in touch with your friends and other elements of your life too. These are all important for overall wellbeing!
If you're a parent or guardian of a young person who is currently preparing for exams, sign up for our free webinar 'Supporting Young People During Exam Season' taking place on Thursday 28 April from 12-12.45pm BST. Find out more and book your FREE place today!