Friday - - Ask The Experts -

QI’m a med­i­cal stu­dent strug­gling with ex­ams. I have prob­lems re­call­ing in­for­ma­tion. The mo­ment I see the ques­tions I forget ev­ery­thing. I try my best to calm down and try to re­mem­ber the an­swers but to no avail. It’s like my brain just shuts down and re­fuses to process any­thing. I never faced this prob­lem dur­ing my school life.

AThis must be so frus­trat­ing for you. Exam blank­ing can feel like an in­sur­mount­able bar­rier - but don’t worry, as there are a num­ber of strate­gies you can use to over­come it.

As you are study­ing to be a doc­tor, you, more than most, will un­der­stand that the brain works in mys­te­ri­ous and com­plex ways, es­pe­cially when we en­counter stress.

When you are in the prepa­ra­tion phase for an exam, the en­vi­ron­ment is a pre­dictable one and your brain en­gages in some­thing called ‘cold cog­ni­tion’. Comfy chair, breaks, a homely en­vi­ron­ment, per­haps mu­sic play­ing qui­etly in the back­ground – all of th­ese things min­imise the stress and the brain does not re­lease the key hor­mones that make us feel pan­icky. Rather, that cool, ra­tio­nal part of your brain does all it needs to do to ac­quire the knowl­edge you need for the up­com­ing test.

Now fac­tor in an exam hall, lots of ner­vous en­ergy com­ing off you and other stu­dents and the weight of ex­pec­ta­tion you have placed upon your­self, and the brain can com­pletely mis­fire when you least want it to. This can hap­pen to even the most pre­pared, in­tel­li­gent stu­dents, be­cause the fear of fail­ure su­per­sedes ev­ery­thing else. The exam is now per­ceived as a ‘threat’ and not sur­pris­ingly you find you have en­tered the realms of ‘hot cog­ni­tion’, where your brain is driven by emo­tion and il­log­i­cal think­ing and it feels very dif­fi­cult to re­gain con­trol.

First, try to un­pick what has gone wrong in the past. How do you feel be­fore the exam? How do you feel in the exam hall? Are you work­ing smart in the run up and ac­tively re­vis­ing? Are there any trig­gers you can iden­tify that make you feel you can’t re­mem­ber any­thing? This will form a good foun­da­tion from which to build up your tol­er­ance to stress.

One im­por­tant thing you can do to help your­self of­ten sur­prises peo­ple, be­cause it’s all about learn­ing to re­lax more. Per­haps you have placed such a bur­den of ex­pec­ta­tion on your­self to suc­ceed, that it’s be­come too heavy to carry? Learn­ing re­lax­ation strate­gies will pre­pare your brain to deal with those tricky emo­tions that cloud your think­ing in an exam. Con­sider vis­it­ing a pro­fes­sional to guide you with this, but there is a great deal of in­for­ma­tion out there that can help too. Mind­ful­ness is one such tool. This will al­low you to fo­cus on the present, whilst at the same time get­ting you to ac­knowl­edge your anx­i­ety and process it, in­stead of be­ing swept away by it.

When study­ing, make the en­vi­ron­ment you work in repli­cate the real thing as much as you can. Timed an­swers, solid writ­ing with no breaks, no noise, no in­ter­rup­tions, past exam ques­tions, an exam desk and chair – all of th­ese should be built into your study pro­gramme. Dis­cuss your con­cerns with a tu­tor and see if they can di­rect you down the right path­way to ac­cess greater sup­port.

Self-care strate­gies are also very im­por­tant. Enough qual­ity sleep, good nu­tri­tion, plenty of ex­er­cise and time sim­ply to down tools and en­joy your­self are vi­tal when you want to achieve suc­cess.

RUS­SEL HEM­MINGS is a life coach, and clin­i­cal and cog­ni­tive be­havioural hyp­nother­a­pist

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