Why you might not be able to get rid of your anxiety (and why it shouldn’t stop you anyway)

Whether you’re doing ‘real’ exams, mocks or even just end of topic assessments, exam and performance-related anxiety is a very real sensation that, if not properly managed, can be debilitating. From a teacher’s perspective, I’ve dealt with many students who get extremely anxious in exam or assessment situations. From a personal perspective, anxiety has also been a constant companion in my life.

I failed four driving tests because I was so nervous I did the most ridiculous things (including leaving the handbrake engaged all the way up to third gear) that I never did in my lessons. In my second year of uni I had to leave my exams with severe chest pains caused by gastritis – my stomach lining was almost eating itself with the stress I was putting myself under.

So what’s the point of this (slightly oversharing) post? A quick online search will list countless ways to ‘overcome’ or ‘beat’ your nerves and anxiety. We all know we should get enough sleep, eat healthily, go for a walk, plan our revision carefully and practice deep breathing and meditation. But what if they don’t work?

I’m not trying to be deliberately mean or pessimistic, but during this year’s world mental health week I think it is important to have realistic expectations about what we can force our bodies and minds to do, and what just might be making things worse. Instead of recommending you draw up a schedule of kale, yoga and white noise, here’s four questions you should ask yourself that might help reframe and give yourself ways to live with this unwelcome mental house guest.

What does anxiety feel like for you?

I am a very somatic person – this means I feel things physically. Anxiety for me concentrates on my stomach and also in muscle tension. Some people experience other physical sensations such as temperature problems, headaches, or even muscle weakness or shaking. Some people get tearful, others angry. An important key to managing and living with anxiety is to recognise what it looks and feels like for you – and not trying to push away or fight those sensations.

How long does it last – and what does it stop you doing?

This is really important. It’s completely normal to get anxious and feel stressed. Although this article is about living with and managing anxiety by reframing your thoughts, if anxiety is seriously impacting your life then you should be seeking more professional help. It may be that you’ll feel anxious for days or weeks during exams, but if that is leading to serious symptoms (like when my stomach acid went into overdrive) you should seek help from your doctor. Similarly, if you’re regularly feeling heightened anxiety during times that are not recognised as being stressful (such as hanging out with friends, going to the shops or just going to school normally) you may need more help from a trained professional.

What causes your anxiety?

This question might not be as simple as you think. It’s easy to simply pin it on a particular event – an exam, big life change, or approaching deadline. However, that doesn’t explain why some people are better able to deal with these events than others. I can usually pin my anxiety down to two things about my personality that make me susceptible: I care about people a lot (so am more likely to be affected by their opinions, behaviours and feelings) and I have high standards and expectations of myself. Since these traits have led to me achieving a lot of good things in life, it helps me accept the flipside of being a bit more highly strung than others.

How could it be helpful?

So, if you’ve identified that you are particularly anxious during exams, and that this may be because you are a very driven person who is aiming high – how can your anxiety help you? By considering anxiety as a personality feature that you can make work for you, you may find that it actually becomes easier to control. For me, anxiety means that I care, have attention to detail and want to get things right. Weirdly, as an anxious person I find I am more likely to take on ‘scary’ challenges or put myself out there – I’m so used to feeling stressed about completely normal things that it doesn’t seem much more of a push to move to a foreign country, walk over hot coals for charity or start my own business.

Want some more practical help with your chemistry exams?

It’s all very well tackling your emotions, but you might still need a bit of support understanding organic reaction mechanisms, redox titrations or buffer calculations. If you’re looking for great value support you can access whenever you need, my A Level chemistry masterclass revision packages offer hours of detailed video tutorials and practice questions – plus the opportunity to ask for help when you need it. If you want to be better prepared for your exams, try my predicted and practice papers. Alternatively, there are still some spaces left on my A Level chemistry one day revision courses for AQA and OCR A happening during May half term.

Claire Costello-Kelly

Claire Costello-Kelly

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