Exam Time Again

Just as the sun begins to warm our skin exam time looms for thousands of students. Hours are to be spent huddled over books and computers and acres of notes are created. Inevitably some students just seem to work through this process but for others it is a time of stress, torment and crushing self-doubt, all of this bleeding into the life of the family.

I must confess that as a 16 year old and later taking my finals at degree level, I recall vividly vowing never to sit an exam again such was my fear. On the night of one of my ‘O’ levels I was to be found under my parents bed weeping in sheer panic, the best solution thought to give me the following morning some little pill from the medicine cabinet. This of course taught me no real coping strategies and did me no favours. Exams for most young people are a fact of their educational lives, but with a few strategies I believe they should not cause the fear and panic I myself have experienced as well as witnessed in the young people I work with and know.

One of the most rewarding aspects of being a counsellor/Hypnotherapist has been in the last month or so working with students with anticipated exam stress. They have usually have had moments of sheer panic or been communicated with in a non- productive way causing great lack of confidence. My experience has been of students caught in a system that puts a great deal of expectation of high results, from all angles; teachers, parents (no matter how laid back we may appear they want to please us)and of course themselves. There seems to be a constant highly critical and negative internal dialogue of ‘I must, get a grip, it will be the end of the world’.

So what do we work on in clinic? Really it is a process of putting everything into context (creating the bigger picture), turning negative self-talk into something positive and with some personal healthy coping strategies if the panic does begin to bite.

• Initially we talk about what path the student sees themselves following, their hopes and expectations for the future. Does an A grade really matter to them, or other people? Do they need it to get where they want to go? We talk about the things they love doing, the things they don’t. Crucially we talk about what is the worst that could happen in reality? Remember Edison failed numerous times before creating the light bulb.

• Practicalities matter. A steady revision timetable with times for breaks and rest. The breaks are nourishment for the body and soul. Crucially we talk about the night before the exam, hopefully getting the whole family on-board and planning a stopping time for revision as well as relaxing and comforting activities that will ensure reasonable nights sleep.

• Importantly we work on breathing, a skill for life. Basic meditation techniques are brilliant in helping the body reach a place that is calm and receptive. Just asking the student to find 10 minutes a day to sit in a quiet place and listen with a gentle awareness to the sounds around then is a simple way to start, this can be extended then to bringing gentle awareness to their breathing. Within moments the whole body begins to relax down.

• Tina Turner had the right idea when she strutted about the stage in a red dress and high heels if I recall singing ‘simply the best, better than all the rest’. Well you don’t have to go that far but Ms Turner is a good illustration of positive self- talk. This is also another skill for life; the ability to step back and realise we are not helping ourselves when we hear that inner voice say ‘I can’t do this’. A better strategy is to learn the habit of turning the difficult into something that helps us. One such method in this case is the creation of a little phrase (self-Affirmation) personal to the student that helps to keep them on track and motivated such as ‘I can do this, this is just one more step toward my goal’. In clinic we often combine this affirmation with a self -soothing technique, the best one I know is to gently create a circular movement with your index finger on either the wrist of your other hand or the palm, whilst keeping your eyes fixed on an object of your choice.

• Now finally in clinic I do use Hypnosis in this situation. Crucially and this could be done at home, we look at all the steps to taking the exam, talking about the least fearful to the most, seeing at this point if there is a more positive way of looking at the situation. Where I differ as a counsellor and Hypnotherapist is that under hypnosis I then work with my client at a process called desensitization, gradually working through the steps and reducing the fear and replacing this with the desired states of the client; usually calm, confidence and problem solving strategies. Projecting into the future new positive habits and ways of being.

I do hope that in some way this article helps stressed parents or students. I know that exams, although never a completely joyful experience for the majority of us, can have the ability to stress us all to the point of exhaustion considerably reduced.

Michelle Krethlow Shaw
Counsellor/Hypnotherapist/EMDR
www.krethlowcounselling.co.uk

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