As exam season approaches, the tell-tale signs of exam stress may be creeping into your household. Many parents already know that practical steps, like encouraging exercise alongside a well planned revision timetable, goes a long way to helping students as they approach exams. But with exam anxiety on the rise, it can be useful for parents and carers to understand what is going on in the nervous system of their child, so that they are able to provide the next level of support during exam season.
Revising for (and dreading) exams can start to take over a student’s world. Although an activated nervous system can provide us with drive and motivation, when a student starts to fear an exam, their nervous systems can go into overdrive, producing excessive anxiety. Unmanaged, this can have negative consequences for mental health and ironically for cognitive function and therefore exam performance.
In our human evolution, when sensing a threat, the nervous system triggered our “fight or flight” response and the body prepared for the huge physical feat of fighting or running. All the energy flowed to the part of the brain responsible for these functions, often referred to as the limbic system or the “back brain”. Analytical thinking and memory requires the pre-frontal cortex or the “front brain” ,however this goes off-line when we are in survival mode. If you are sprinting away from a predator, your brain is not worried about solving a complex mathematical problem, it’s only concern is priming the body for peak physical performance. This is what produces many anxiety symptoms and why it can be more difficult to think things through and to recall information under pressure. So, how can parents help their children back into the “front brain”?
Firstly, it can be useful to explain what anxiety is. Essentially, if the body is not under threat, anxiety symptoms (fight or flight mode) are a false alarm. The body starts to prepare to run away from a sabre tooth tiger and actually, we don’t need to, it’s just an exam! This in itself can be a reassuring thought, “OK, that’s why I feel like this!” By acknowledging this, we are already coming into the front brain. Calm, rational, reassuring thoughts can go a long way to helping to manage and calm anxiety.
Under stress, students (like the rest of us) often catastrophize, imagining a disastrous scenario.Upon sitting down for an exam, students often report thoughts such as “I’m going to fail!”, “I’m going to forget everything!” or “I’m going to ruin my life!”. Noticing and then challenging these thoughts, essentially invites us back into the “front brain”. Pausing to look at the reality usually paints quite a different and less stressful picture.
This could be described as coming into the “Adult” part of the self, the rational part of the personality that helps us calm down and come back into the “front brain”. Parents, of course, are the models for children’s internal “Adult” and modelling this around exam times is one of the most useful things a parent can do. Allowing children to express their fears and responding with a calm, rational and reassuring presence, shows them not only that a calmer perspective is possible but that it’s useful because it helps us to think clearly.
So draw attention to the catastrophizing thought and help your child come up with an alternative. “That’s a very stressy thought, let’s look at the facts,” or “I wonder what a more helpful thought might be?” invites the student to access their own inner “Adult” resources. We might look at evidence of previous “non-catastrophes”, or other reassuring perspectives. Adolescents can be helped into this state by asking, “What would you say to your friend or sibling in this situation?” It’s often easier to be calmer and reassuring when we imagine helping someone else.
Another frequently-identified negative thought that follows “I’m going to fail!” is: “I will let my family down” or “my parents will be so disappointed in me”. Parents might be shocked at how many of these thoughts go through young people’s minds. In the stressful lead up to exams, your child may benefit from being reminded of what may seem blindingly obvious to you, that their results do not equate to their value, and that they will be loved and supported regardless. Assure students that, although their exams are important for some practical reasons, disappointing results are not the end of the world, both child and parent will survive it. As we adults know, coping well with disappointment is indeed a valuable life skill. When it comes to exams, the less we fear them, the easier it is to stay calm and the better we are likely to perform.