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Reducing test anxiety with help from ‘Amy G Dala’

Headshots of woman going from grumpy to happy
Stuart Pedley-Smith
By Stuart Pedley-Smith, Kaplan Head of Learning Link to Stuart Pedley-Smith's LinkedIn profile

Kaplan’s Head of Learning, Stuart Pedley-Smith, offers his advice and knowledge regarding the anxieties and stress surrounding your exams.

Whether you call it test anxiety or exam stress, they are both terms used to describe a combination of physical symptoms and emotional reactions that can impact your ability to do well in exams. It’s hard to measure how many people suffer from it, although there are estimates of between 10% and 40%, with some correlation with the increased testing in schools.

Symptoms of exam stress or anxiety

The physical symptoms include headache, nausea, sweating and shortness of breath, for example. Whilst the emotional symptoms are often fear, helplessness, disappointment and negative thoughts brought on by self-doubt and the reinvention of past failures. Both of these contribute to an inability to concentrate and think clearly which fuels procrastination. It’s a condition that can result in someone failing an exam, which in turn may significantly reduce their career options. My point is, it’s a really important subject.

Amy G Dala or Amygdala

Not a person, but a group of nuclei found deep in the brain’s temporal lobe and part of the limbic system. The amygdala was initially thought to be responsible for fear and negative responses that feed the fight or flight reaction. However, work by Professor Lisa Feldman Barrett, who specialises in affective science (the study of emotion), suggests this is not the case.

Barrett argues that the amygdala sends signals of ambiguity and novelty, which are then combined with past experiences, information from your body such as a pounding heart, and context to construct an emotion, like anxiety. The context here could be sitting in the exam room in complete silence while waiting for the invigilator to say, “you can now turn over your paper.”

You are not born with emotions; they are constructed by the brain based on a prediction as to what might happen next. For example, you’re walking down the street and a group of loud teenagers are coming towards you. The amygdala may signal this as something ambiguous and novel, therefore your body will respond by increasing your heart rate while the brain attempts to find out if this has happened before. If this has happened in the past, and it was a bad experience, then it might trigger the emotion of fear. However, if the group simply walk past chatting and laughing, then this emotion will fade.

Speech marks

“Emotions are not reactions to the world – they are your constructions of the world.”

Although it may not be obvious at this point, understanding how emotions are constructed will help to reduce feelings of anxiety.

You have control over your emotions

Many people believe emotions are uncontrollable “arriving unbidden and departing of their own accord”, but this is not the case, as Professor Barrett's work has identified. There is a point where the brain has to predict what will happen and create an emotion to match that prediction. If we can effectively step in at the point of prediction, we can change the emotion.

Speech marks

“Emotions that seem to happen to you are created by you.”

“You are the architect of your experience.”

If you are about to take a test, your amygdala might sense uncertainty and ambiguity. This can lead to you breathing more deeply and your brain will begin to race ahead so that it can make a prediction and offer up a suitable emotion. But if you step in and interpret the emotion ahead of the prediction you can change the way you feel. In this example, try to tell yourself that the deep breathing is helping you get sufficient oxygen into your lungs which will help you think more clearly, or maybe the slight shaking of your hand is an indication that you are not too relaxed, you are just at the right point to take a test. This is effectively a reframe or reinterpretation that turns a bad situation into a better one.

This gets even better the next time you take a test. Your brain may, once again, race ahead, looking to make a prediction and find the experience that happened last time, e.g. that the heavy breathing was perfectly normal and made you feel calm and motivated. As a result, it will take this as the prediction and replicate the emotion. But like so many things, it can take time. Building neuroglial pathways isn’t always easy, so don’t lose confidence if it doesn’t immediately work.

People already use this technique but don’t realise it. Have you ever heard someone say that they like to feel a “little bit nervous” because it helps them perform better?

And this is all made possible by a better understanding of two small almond-shaped regions deep in the brain, thank you Amy G Dala.

Professor Lisa Feldman Barrett

Listen to Lisa Feldman Barrett's How Emotions are Made, the theory of constructed emotion. And her TED lecture – You aren’t at the mercy of your emotions, your brain creates them.

Need further advice?

Our teams at Kaplan are here to support you. If you have any uncertainties about your upcoming exams, feel free to get in touch.

We offer support from webinars, podcasts and blogs, to help and guidance from the Academic Support Team, Progressional Advisors, the Student Services Team and our Safeguarding Team who can help with mental health and anxiety.

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