I still remember the moment very clearly. Grade 11 Maths examination, middle of the winter. 30minutes into the exam I came across THE equation. Ready to tackle it and then BLANK! Just blank. Nothing. My world felt like it was going to end. I fixated so much on this problem that next thing I knew I had 30minutes left and my whole paper was ruined.
This was not the last time this happened. This phenomenon became a regular occurrence until a few years into my University education when I learnt about the phenomenon of test anxiety, examination anxiety or exam stress.
Meditation has significantly impacted the way in which I handle my anxiety. If you were wondering, I am not talking about the spiritual form of the practice.
Sit in a comfortable position and focus on your breath, and try to just focus on the breath. An interesting thing normally happens, your mind will get distracted. The key is just to gently, not being tough on yourself, bring your attention back to the breath.
I found by doing this I became aware of what felt like to feel relaxed. I also started doing this before or during my tests. The true magic also happens when I started doing this before my study sessions.
Meditation thaught me two things.
- You don’t have to believe or grab onto thoughts
- What it really feels like to be focused and relaxed
2. Reframe your beliefs about tests.
As a scholar, I directly labelled my self-worth and success to how I performed in tests. This turned out to be the major impetus contributing to these blank anxious moments. Let me slow down and provide you with an example.
Sitting in the venue I get to the infamous question, mentioned above. In reality, the was not that difficult. However, as I engaged with the sum a thought popped up. “You are dumb! You have studied this work and still can’t answer it”. This thought quickly evolved into… “Your whole future is ruined”.
These days, I know that this is called an anxious spiral. I was so preoccupied with these thoughts, that I was completely distracted from actually continuing with the rest of the paper. I overgeneralised and believed the same was going to be true for all the other questions and subjects. I started dreading tests and examinations because it became situations of great anxiety for me. Test and examinations became a reminder of my incompetence, or so I believed…
Luckily, I was very fortunate to learn that my perception about exams was directly linked to my anxiety. I started challenging myself to change my perception about test and exams. These days if I need to write an examination I see it as an opportunity to prove myself. A challenge that I gladly accept.
I have also learnt not to take one situation or one occurrence as the rule for the rest. In other words not to overgeneralise one situation into all situations. I still get blanks or difficult questions, but they no longer determine my self-worth. This is also why I have become so fond of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) in my therapy practice. CBT really goes into the detail of how our thoughts and perceptions impact our emotions and behaviours.
3. Upskill yourself
So I have learnt to be calm and I have learnt to tackle the thought. The next thing that made a significant impact was learning new and different study skills. I went to the library (this was the days before Youtube) and found different books on memory and studying. This opened a whole new world and intrigued my interest into the field of psychology even more.
You won’t believe me, but I actually became excited about test and examinations because this gave me an opportunity to put these newly learnt skills to the test. Although techniques like mnemonicsand memory palaces were tricky to learn; once I started getting in the groove I felt unstoppable!