“If you want to conquer the anxiety of life, live in the moment, live in the breath.” ~ Amit Ray, Om Chanting & Meditation
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Although my days of exams are finally over, I experience them in a different way now – second hand. My son, currently in 11th grade, is in the throws of writing high school exams which include two “high stakes” 12th grade provincial diploma exams. If he follows a course in life remotely similar to my husband and I, he will be facing many more exams in his future. Despite the pressure surrounding him from both teachers and peers, he has been able to maintain an impressively levelheaded approach to the whole process. As a generally anxious young person, I could have benefited from his headspace for some of my exams.
My most vivid near-breakdown experience occurred in first year medical school during a histology bell ringer exam. The exam consisted of looking into a microscope (at something quite amorphous by most accounts) and writing down what it represented. For instance, it might be a microscopic slide of nerve tissue, and you may even need to know the stain it was fixed with. Every time the bell rang, you had seconds to identify what you saw, write down your answer and then get ready to move onto the next microscope. Such detail oriented information was not my forte, but a necessary requirement of my medical education. Picking and choosing courses was not an option, nor was freaking out which was what I appeared to do.
Partway through the exam I had an experience that would prove to be a helpful insight for patient care in the future, but not helpful for me at the time. My heart raced, my vision blurred, and I thought I was going to pass out or worse yet – die. In this midst of a full-blown panic attack , I had no choice but to leave the room for fear of ending up in a pile. Fortunately, my professor was very understanding, likely not the first time he had witnessed such a reaction from a panic stricken examinee. In the end, I was able to redo and pass the exam.
How can you try to overcome test anxiety?
In retrospect, the anxiety-riddled experience I endured during that histology bell ringer exam in first year medical school helped build my level of resilience. As I progressed through my medical training, I was able to tackle the high-stakes medical qualifying exams and a family practice exam without a repeat performance.
How can you do it? Focus on the following 4 main things no matter how important the exam:
1) Perspective: having more in my life than school and medicine, such as meaningful relationships, gave me the much-needed perspective to face an exam. Even if I didn’t achieve what I was hoping for, what was the worst-case scenario? Usually it is not as dire as we initially make it out to be.
2) Self-care: getting adequate rest and sleep, eating well and squeezing in physical activity was extremely beneficial to avoiding a build-up of stress. Resting our brain and nourishing our body can usually help us more than just cramming in more information.
3) Breathe: I often took deep breaths to calm myself down but didn’t realize just how universally beneficial it was. Focusing on your breath can be an effective way to cope with test anxiety. Just even taking a few deep breaths, inhaling through your nose and exhaling with an open mouth, can turn off the “flight-or-flight” response associated with stress.
4) Clear your mind: Since he is currently in the throws of exams, my son thought it was important to this tip. He said that he has been taking time to be in the moment, free of thoughts of school or anything else, to allow him a sense of clarity. His mindfulness exercise is a very effective way to approach exams and will serve him well in life.
Have you ever had to overcome test anxiety? If so, what was your secret?