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Ad­vice on pre­par­ing for ex­ams, ca­reers and di­et­ing

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EXAM FEAR HAS LED TO BRAIN FREEZE

Q I am a high school stu­dent. In the past year I feel like my brain has stopped work­ing. I can’t seem to per­form like I did be­fore and I’m wor­ried I’m go­ing to fail. I used to get high scores in all sub­jects but now I don’t seem to be able to process even sim­ple ques­tions. I’m scared I won’t be able to do well in my fi­nal ex­ams. I know I sound like a dra­matic teenager, but can you help?

AYou’ve high­lighted an is­sue so many young peo­ple are deal­ing with at the mo­ment; the panic and stress they feel when it comes to ex­ams.

Be­lieve me when I say you are not be­ing dra­matic – this is a real prob­lem for many gifted young peo­ple and it comes from the pres­sure of ex­pec­ta­tions and the worry that they might not live up to these ex­pec­ta­tions.

We often at­tach neg­a­tive con­no­ta­tions to the word ‘stress’, be­cause we as­so­ci­ate it with feel­ing over­whelmed.

How­ever, when it comes to ris­ing to a chal­lenge, some ‘stress’ is re­quired to make us per­form to the best of our abil­ity; it helps us think on our feet and ‘pull it out of the bag’ just at the right mo­ment.

How­ever, when those lev­els of stress ex­ceed our need, the body be­haves in a very dif­fer­ent way. Too much stress tends to prompt changes in our be­hav­iour as a re­sponse. Reach­ing for un­healthy sugar-laden foods, drink­ing too much caf­feine, not get­ting enough ex­er­cise or sleep – all of these be­hav­iours kick in and can com­pound the prob­lem.

Added to this, when we ex­pe­ri­ence high amounts of stress a hor­mone called cor­ti­sol is re­leased into our bod­ies, con­spir­ing to cause some­thing called ‘brain fog’.

This sounds like it might ap­ply to you. Brain fog means you can’t quite fo­cus on any­thing and is often as­so­ci­ated with high lev­els of anx­i­ety caused by stress.

It’s very un­likely you are go­ing to be­come less aca­dem­i­cally ca­pa­ble in this short space of time. It’s far more likely you are per­ceiv­ing your forth­com­ing ex­ams as a ‘threat’ and your body is re­spond­ing ac­cord­ingly.

When I say ‘threat’, I mean that your feel­ings of stress are be­ing caused by a num­ber of exam-re­lated feel­ings. Your anx­i­ety lev­els are high be­cause you are wor­ried about the con­se­quences of fail­ure; the fall­out be­ing that you might feel you have let peo­ple down and that you your­self will feel judged and your self-es­teem will take a bat­ter­ing. The first thing you need to do is ac­knowl­edge to your­self how you are ac­tu­ally feel­ing. It’s OK to feel ner­vous about your fu­ture.

This is a piv­otal time in your life, but it’s all about get­ting things into per­spec­tive and cre­at­ing bal­ance and there is a great deal you can ac­tively do to achieve that.

In fact, the process of fos­ter­ing this sense of bal­ance will shift your fo­cus away from the fear of the exam it­self and will put you more in con­trol.

You need to make a plan. How are you go­ing to eat healthily, get enough sleep and build in enough down­time and ex­er­cise?

All of these things will de­crease your lev­els of stress and when that hap­pens the feel­ing of your brain ‘not work­ing’ will di­min­ish.

The hu­man brain is a highly com­plex thing, yet we often treat it with a dis­tinct lack of re­gard. Feed your brain, al­low it some time to re­lax and recharge and make sure you de­velop a bal­anced work/re­vi­sion plan and you will get back to your best.

And don’t for­get, no mat­ter what hap­pens in an ex­am­i­na­tion, you will still be here and still have a fu­ture to de­velop and to think of af­ter it’s over.

It’s very UN­LIKELY that you are go­ing to be­come less aca­dem­i­cally ca­pa­ble. It’s far more likely you are PER­CEIV­ING your forth­com­ing ex­ams as a ‘THREAT’ and your body is re­spond­ing ac­cord­ingly

RUS­SELL HEMMINGS

is a life coach, and clin­i­cal and cog­ni­tive be­havioural hyp­nother­a­pist

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