An article by Anke Sommer
Not a closed book
Why stress management is so important in all exam situations
It’s a simple fact: stress and pressure cause various reactions that have an impact on the body. These reactions reduce your ability to perform, including in examinations, because they distract your attention to focus on the physical constraints.
Most of these restrictions are caused by stress and result when we ignore the many signals that our body sends us when its ability to maintain our physical and mental health is endangered.
Unfortunately that soon happens when we are under time pressure, allied with the feeling that we can’t allow ourselves any more delays because we won’t manage to get all the masses of material into our brains as it is. We’ve already lost so much time, or the pile of material to be learnt is still too high. That’s when the stress mill starts turning, making it impossible for us to take the regeneration phases that we so urgently need.
Body signal chains: the consequence of missed regeneration
That’s when ‘body signal chains’ are generated. ‘Body signal chain’ is the term I invented to make the nature of stress signals easier to grasp and to show that almost every stress signal builds up in stages. First comes the original signal, the first physical signal that occurs when our body’s provision is at risk. For example, it might be a slight stabbing in the temples when we’re bent over our books again, although we can’t really take anything in because we’ve overdone it; or the movement that our head makes to cope with tension in the nape of our neck.
If we don’t register these initial signals, two consequences follow that we have to bear. The first is that since the body’s signal was ignored, it continues to send this signal. The second consequence that reaches us is the reinforcement of the first signal. After the first signal has been sent multiple times, it is joined by the second signal: our stress-related body signal chain has been extended by a second ‘pearl’. If this signal is also ignored, a third pearl joins it.
The more ‘pearls’ that are added to the chain, the more ‘dense’ we become. Our muscles harden, making it more difficult to absorb oxygen, and the stooped position we adopt under stress also gets worse. Before we know where we are, the chain has been extended by several more ‘pearls’, because the hardened muscles alone aggravate the lack of oxygen in our whole body. By now we have difficulty in resting, because we are tense and not sleeping well. And then it happens; we’re confronted with the end of the chain: the symptom.
Some examples of symptoms are migraine-type headaches, stress-induced skin disease, a slipped disc or even gastritis. This list clearly shows that the growing chain makes the affected person ill. If the person doesn’t call a halt at this point, increasing the oxygen content through movement and breathing exercises, the process continues. Unfortunately the new chain starts where the first symptom finished, so it will take us even closer to the limits of our capacity.
Checkmate due to the consequences of ignoring warning signals
We’re particularly at risk of becoming increasingly blind to our body’s needs when we’re in the middle of pressure phases. While revising for examinations and faced with the budding fear of our performance in an oral examination, our efforts and aspirations are concentrated on coping with the exam’s demands. The greater the pressure, the greater the fear of not succeeding. Procrastination sets in, showing us that the pressure is causing us a serious problem. It also becomes difficult or even impossible to put a stop to the images running through our minds.
Before you start devoting yourself to the management systems and rhetoric in oral examinations, in order to become even more effective, you should first turn your attention to protecting your body, because you can’t do anything without your body. Unfortunately the negative impact on the exam result is serious if you don’t do this, because your body doesn’t forget the punishment it has received; it stores it up.
And where does this store of punishment manifest itself? It reveals itself when you let go for a moment. The crazy thing is that you do this in the oral exam itself – just beforehand and during it. Here you experience some of the consequences of your previous behaviour. A blackout or whiteout is simply an answer to the previously stored problems. Other consequences are losing contact with the examiner, becoming trapped in the thought that you haven’t learnt enough, and tunnel vision towards questions to which you can’t seem to find the answer.
Keep a clear head
The damage caused by ignoring stress signals is probably at least as bad as the consequences of poor organisation and management plans, although in my experience, the damage is greater.
For this reason, I advise you not to underestimate the consequences of ignoring stress signals and to direct your attention towards these signals. Once you’re aware of them, you should respond. Every signal needs careful treatment. If you haven’t managed to pay enough attention and your body signal chain has already acquired several pearls, you can halt the negative cycle by taking time to recuperate.
Always be aware that what you’ve learnt needs fertile ground to grow in. If you destroy this basis, much of the seed won’t germinate, so be efficient and make sure that you’re in good physical condition. Counter your fears with reality, because reality erases both apprehensions and fears. And what you need in a successful oral examination is a clear head that is in the right state to be able to make the most of what you’ve learnt.
I wish you success in your examination and a forward-looking approach, particularly when you lose your motivation due to pressure. Create targets for yourself that carry you through difficult times.
Seminars on the subject at Institut Sommer
If you would like to know more about oral examinations then you are warmly invited to register for the LEADERSHIP workshop: Oral examinations – not a closed book.