The semester is coming to an end - for students, this means the exam phase begins. Some not only have to deal with the material, but also with sweaty palms, panic or blackouts. Five tips against exam anxiety.
Some have had it their whole lives, others have only developed it after a negative experience. But no one should be helplessly exposed to their exam anxiety, says psychologist Wilfried Schumann. He heads the Psychological Counselling Service run by the University and the Studentenwerk Oldenburg. Students experiencing exam stress regularly get in touch with him and his team when their suffering becomes too great.
Sleep problems, uneasiness and unsettledness that is hard to contain - in extreme cases, all this can lead to black out when it really matters. "The brain is a fantastic instrument, but you have to follow the instructions for use," says Schumann. If there were such a manual, it would say: When the brain is flooded by panic, fear and stress, it switches into survival mode. It then lacks the capacity for detailed analyses or creative ideas for solutions.
To avoid this situation, thorough preparation helps, covering not only the subject matter but also one's own psyche:
1. Create the right starting position
Schumann advises to first assess one's own situation as realistically as possible. What really depends on the exam? What inner effort is justified for it? "There are also exams where the grades don't matter at all in the long run and yet there's too much fire in the cauldron," he explains.
Part of this classification is to realise what does not depend on the outcome of the exam. Those who tie their value as a human being, their value as a member of society or the quality of being lovable to exam success make the exam or the presentation more important than it actually is. "Then the exam suddenly becomes a question of existence," warns Schumann.
Even in the greatest pressure situation - final exam last attempt - however, existence does not depend on passing. "The first thing I do when someone comes to me in this situation is to talk to them about a plan B," says Schumann. Knowing that there is always another way, he says, is an important prerequisite for dealing with exam anxiety.
2. Make the right use of exam preparation time
"For some, the preparation time alone is an ordeal," the psychologist points out. Learning threatens to fall by the wayside because those affected try to avoid the negative feelings. He advises that during the preparation time, one should train the skills that will be required on the day of the exam. Those who are writing an exam should therefore write mock exams under time pressure. If you are giving a presentation, you should practise it in front of another person. That way, you learn to really be able to express what you want to convey.
At the same time, the preparation time is a good opportunity to get yourself on the right track mentally. "The inner attitude I have when entering an exam plays a big role," Schumann emphasises. He therefore recommends methods that are also used in competitive sports before important competitions. "The path to a favourable inner alignment leads, for example, via images, ideas, inner videos," says Schumann. If you have an exam, you should imagine the day in as much detail as possible beforehand, from getting up, to the way to the university, to the successful exam or oral examination. According to Schumann, thoughts such as "Today I am rewarding myself for the efforts of the past weeks" or "I am performing at eye level, with conviction and commitment" should accompany the film.
Firmly anchoring this idea is extremely helpful, says Schumann. "How else can something develop in reality that I don't even have an idea of mentally?"
3. Put an end to learning in good time
Schumann also advises not to study until the "last minute", but to distract yourself from the upcoming exam the next day with a nice evening programme. Meetings with friends, family or acquaintances are ideal because input from others is the best distraction.
By the way, those who sleep badly before exams need not be afraid. "You can stay awake for a night. You will still have enough capacity for the one or two hours an exam lasts," he assures.
4. Avoid the "waiting room situation" before the exam
On day X, it is important to go into the exam with as clear a head as possible. Going through your notes one last time is allowed. "But please do so sparingly," warns the psychologist. Talking to others about exam content, on the other hand, is something he would rather steer clear of. "That can make you hysterical at the last moment."
Exam candidates should avoid spending too much time in a "waiting room" situation, waiting for the exam as if it were an unpleasant visit to the doctor. If you don't have to take the exam until the afternoon, you should plan a tight programme for the hours beforehand - for example, with sports, appointments or other activities.
5. See nervousness as an advantage
If you're still nervous, you haven't done anything wrong. On the contrary. "Psychological research has proven that a medium level of arousal and stage fright increases energy and performance," explains Schumann. It only becomes dangerous, he says, when the mind switches into panic mode and is then no longer helpful, at least for the exam.
"When that happens, that's the right moment to regulate yourself down physically," he says. To realise once again that one's existence does not depend on passing the exam. Or run through the inner film again in fast forward. Some people also find relaxation techniques such as tapping acupressure helpful.
And if something goes wrong in the end despite all the preparation, plan B has already been made. After all, the situation is nothing less, but above all nothing more than what it is: just an exam.