Whether you call it test anxiety or exam stress, they are both terms used to describe a combination of physical symptoms and emotional reactions that can impact your ability to do well in exams. It’s hard to measure how many people suffer from it, although there are estimates of between 10% and 40%, with some correlation with the increased testing in schools.
The physical symptoms include headache, nausea, sweating, shortness of breath etc, whilst the emotional ones are fear, helplessness, disappointment and negative thoughts brought on by self-doubt and the reinvention of past failures. Both of which contribute to an inability to concentrate and think clearly which fuels procrastination. It’s a condition that can result in someone failing an exam which in turn may significantly reduce their career options, my point, it’s a really important subject.
Amy G Dala or Amygdala (uh·mig·duh·luh)
Not a person of course but a group of nuclei found deep in the brain’s temporal lobe and part of the limbic system. The amygdala was initially thought to be responsible for fear and negative responses that feed the fight or flight reaction, but work by Professor Lisa Feldman Barrett who specialises in affective science (The study of emotion) suggest this is not the case. She argues that the Amygdala sends signals of ambiguity and novelty which are then combined with past experiences, information from your body, such as a pounding heart and context to construct an emotion, such as anxiety. The context here might be sitting in the exam room in complete silence waiting for the invigilator to say, “you can now turn over your paper.”
You are not born with emotions; they are constructed by the brain based on a prediction as to what might happen next. For example, if you were walking down the road and a group of young adults are coming towards you, the amygdala will signal this as something ambiguous and novel, your body will respond by increasing your heart rate and the brain will then attempt to find out if this has happened before. If it has and you had your mobile phone stolen it might trigger the emotion of fear. If the group simple walk past chatting and laughing the emotion will fade.
“Emotions are not reactions to the world – they are your constructions of the world.”
Professor Lisa Feldman Barrett
Although it may not be obvious at this point understanding how emotions are constructed is going to help reduce our feelings of anxiety.
You have control over your emotions
Many people believe emotions are uncontrollable “arriving unbidden and departing of their own accord”, but this is not the case as Professor Barratts work has identified. There is a point where the brain has to predict what will happen and create an emotion to match that prediction. If we can effectively step in at the point of prediction, we can change the emotion.
“Emotions that seem to happen to you are created by you”
“You are the architect of your experience”
Professor Lisa Feldman Barrett
If for example you are about to take a test, your amygdala will sense uncertainly and ambiguity, you might start to breath more deeply, and at this point your brain will begin to race ahead so that it can make a prediction and offer up a suitable emotion. But if you step in and interpret the emotion ahead of the prediction you can change the way you feel. In this example just tell yourself that the deep breathing is helping you get sufficient oxygen into your lungs which will help you think more clearly, or maybe the slight shaking of your hand is an indication that you are not too relaxed, you are just at the right point to take a test. This is effectively a reframe or reinterpretation that turns a bad situation into a good one.
This gets even better, the next time you take a test your brain will once again race ahead looking to make a prediction and find the experience that happened last time, e.g. that the heavy breathing was perfectly normal and made you feel calm and motivated. As a result, it will take this as the prediction and replicate the emotion. But like so many things, it can take time, building neuroglial pathways is not always easy, so don’t lose confidence if it doesn’t immediately work.
People already use this technique but don’t realise it, have you ever heard someone say that they like to feel a “little bit nervous” because it helps them perform better.
And this is all made possible by a better understanding of two small almond-shaped regions deep in the brain, thank you Amy G Dala.
Want to know more, listen to Lisa Feldman Barrett – How Emotions are Made. The theory of constructed emotion. And her TED lecture – You aren’t at the mercy of your emotions, your brain creates them