You wake up, stretch and greet the morning as you normally would. Until you remember that you’ve got an exam today. Cue nausea, cold sweats, shaking hands, the thought ‘I’m going to fail, I’m going to fail, I’m going to fail, I’m going to…’ unhelpfully buzzing around the brain that you’ve suddenly lost all confidence in.

Exam preparation doesn’t just mean study. It means preparing yourself, in the most holistic sense of the word. So during study/exam season, you need to look after yourself by eating well, getting into a great sleeping pattern, and generally pretending that you’re a monk for about a month. Nah, it’s not that bad, but ‘yes’ to the diet and sleep obviously.

The point is, the last thing you want to do is blow all the work you’ve put in because you’re freaking out before and during your exam. It’s completely natural to be anxious, and a certain amount of nervousness is a good thing, but too much can really ruin your day.

What is nervousness?

Anxiety is quite a pesky neurological phenomenon that is buried deep within the most primitive circuits of your brain. It’s kind of a hangover from a time when life REALLY threw challenges at us. The type of challenge that has very large teeth. ‘Getting nervous’ in the days when your ancestors wore their best animal skin to the end-of-year ball meant that something hungry was probably chasing them.

Anxiety happens when we’re under stress. Our ever-helpful brain triggers the hormone cortisol (and two kinds of adrenaline), which brings on what’s called a ‘fight or flight‘ response. It’s easy to see why both of those things are good choices when claws and teeth are headed your way.

Cortisol is basically a drug that your brain uses to turn you into the Hulk temporarily (yes, that is the original Hulk in all his awesomeness). Cortisol has loads of different effects, but among the main ones are things like increased heart rate and blood pressure, muscle tension, and heightened alertness. Basically, your whole body goes to Defcon 1 and you’re ready for whatever.

Fight or flight is not such a useful thing in today’s world however. That’s not to say that we’re never in danger, but the whole beasts preying on us thing has mostly been sorted.

The problem is our brains haven’t kept up. We release the same hormones if you answer a knock at the door to an angry mastodon, or your little brother’s annoying mate. Another problem could be that many of the issues we face today are slow-burners, like study and exams. An angry mastodon is not a slow-burning problem. The cortical system wasn’t designed for little life niggles, meaning that if we’re confronted by a problem that can’t be sorted by running away, we’re exposed to powerful stimulants semi-continuously. Any drug taken over a long period is almost always bad, and in this case we’re talking about a drug that’s used to wake people up from comas. Seriously. Adrenaline is used to wake people up from comas.

Beating anxiety is both a body and a mind thing. By the way, we’re talking here about garden variety anxiety, the type that everyone gets sometimes. If you’re experiencing persistent anxiety, and it’s becoming a problem in your life, you should speak to your family or a health professional. Anxiety disorders are really common in modern society (your humble writer is one of those affected), and it’s a treatable condition that doesn’t need to ruin your life. Just talking to someone is the first step, and it’s important that you do if you feel like your anxiety is getting out of control.

Anyway, anxiety is a mind and body thing. That means that preparation for exams, or any stressful situation for that matter, is all about nurturing both.

First up, a couple of tips to help get that pesky brain thinking healthy thoughts, and stop you dwelling on fear, which of course only amplifies the scariness.

You are not alone!

Nerves isn’t a battle you need to fight in your head alone. It seems like an obvious thing to say, but you’re not the only one with bleeding stumps where your fingernails used to be.

Other people can help you break out of a panicked brain loop. Fear on repeat in your mind just snowballs. The perspective of a fellow student can help you focus on stuff outside your own brain, which gives your poor cortical system a break, and allows you to remind your primitive brain that an exam is not a sabre toothed tiger. At least in the sense that study will help you defeat an exam. Probably still run if there is a sabre toothed tiger at your front door.

Ask for help

The advice of friends and family is great of course, but at your school there’s likely to be one or several guidance counsellors, and these guys/girls have been studying things like exam-induced stress for their entire careers. Why would you not download that knowledge?

You can exercise your brain

You can train your brain not just to remember lots of stuff, but to obey your commands. There are loads of techniques, and names for those techniques, some of which date back to the dawn of time, some which have become fashionable only recently, like the concept of ‘mindfulness’. ‘Meditation’ probably captures what we’re talking about here.

Meditation is far too big a topic to go into here, but what we can say is that there’s loads of scientific evidence proving that meditation can be an effective anxiety killer.

Let’s face it: lots of what goes on in your head is totally useless garbage. Ancient philosopher Siddhartha Gautama (also known as the Buddha, the guy who started the ‘religion’) described the human mind as being crammed with drunken monkeys, constantly chattering and generally doing very distracting monkey stuff.

Meditation is simply training yourself to ignore the monkeys, which actually makes them disappear, or at least go away when you want them to. This means that you’re no longer a slave to distraction, or to negative and harmful thought patterns, and it’s easy to see how that can help turn you into a super-focused and fearless exam warrior.

Eat for success

Diet isn’t directly linked to anxiety – meaning you’re not going to have a panic attack if you eat a Big Mac – but eating crappily for ages influences your brain in the same way it influences your body. Where did you think your brain gets what it needs to keep going? There is however a big difference between ‘keep going’ and ‘Ferrari-level performance’. That difference, both in the Ferrari and in your brain, is the quality of fuel you put in.

Everybody seems to think they’ve solved the great mystery of the perfect diet – not a day goes by without the discovery of another super food that’s going to cure all that ails us. This list of foods you might want to include in your diet comes from a website called CalmClinic. Seems like they know what they’re talking about when it comes to anxiety, and although they’re mostly about people for whom anxiety is a big problem, a diet that could help lessen your pre-exam anxiety can only be a good thing.

Eating less of these won’t cure you of anxiety, but…

  • Fried Foods
  • Alcohol 
  • Coffee 
  • Dairy Products 
  • Refined Sugars 
  • Acidic foods

Eating more of these won’t turn you into a Shaolin warrior, but…

  • Fresh Fruit
  • Vegetables
  • Water
  • Tryptophan Rich Foods (Oats, soy, poultry, and sesame seeds for example).
  • Magnesium Rich Foods As much as 25% of the western population is magnesium deficient, and magnesium plays a role in over 300 different processes within the body. It’s a crucial vitamin that few people get, so magnesium rich foods like black beans and tofu are very important.
  • Omega-3 Fatty Acids Research into Omega 3’s is still being conducted, but there is some evidence that Omega-3 is important for depression and anxiety. Omega-3’s can be found in fish, flax seed, and winter squash.

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