There is nothing like exam stress to throw our brains into turmoil. Yet, understanding how our brain works can be helpful for both strengthening resilience and performing well.
The pressure of doing well can create a feeling that we are under threat, with the part of our brain called the “amygdala” putting our body into fight, flight or freeze mode. This is an evolutionary response which was really handy if we were about to be chased by a tiger, but not so useful if we are dealing with a pile of study notes to review or an irritating flatmate….
The part of our brain that we most want to be using when studying is the prefrontal cortex. Aptly named as it’s located in the front part of our brain, this manages what is called “executive functioning”. Executive functioning includes basically all the smart things we need to do, like creative thinking, strategic planning, and complex decision-making. Think of your executive functioning as your smart brain!
When we are experiencing strong emotions or feel under threat, our amygdala is “on alert”. It is very difficult then, if not impossible, to use our prefrontal cortex. It is like our smart brain has gone out for coffee, or is having cocktails on a beach in Hawaii, while we are left feeling overwhelmed and without support.
At this point we need to take ACTION to calm the amygdala down, then we can use our thinking skills and get our smart brain back on board.
Sounds easy, but how do we do that in practice?
One very effective strategy is to use diaphragmatic or abdominal breathing (you might know it as belly breathing). This very basic action of breathing – from our abdomen – quickly winds down our alarm response and therefore the amygdala.
Another good tool is to practice mindfulness.
A third strategy is to think of something that makes you feel good or do something that helps you feel grateful, calm, happy or satisfied. We know that experiencing one or more of these positive emotions helps to switch our brain and body into a more relaxed state, and therefore one in which the prefrontal cortex can function well.
It’s a great idea to practice these tools when you find yourself starting to get stressed, or noticing that your thoughts about your upcoming exams are starting to be unhelpful, rather than waiting until your amygdala has fully activated the flight or fight response in your body.
To better understand how the different parts of your brain work, see this simple but scientific video.
Advice from a fellow student
When I’m stressed, I find going outside for some exercise, or calling a friend for a quick chat and advice, helps to clear my head and get in the right mindset to deal with what is worrying me. You could do something else you feel brings you back to reality rather than in your stressed mindset.
Then, grab the bull by the horns and get on with it. When you have lots to do and the list is building up the task can look daunting. If you cross a few of those things off the list then there will be less to do. If I have lots to accomplish, I like to write a list. Or if I have one project that seems quite large, I break it into parts and write each part on my list. I find it super satisfying watching something get crossed off. And I feel productive once I cross one thing off and it makes me feel like I can get the rest done as well.