Guest blog by Kate Griffiths qualified as a coach in 2008 and a Colour Teacher in 2016. Kate founded Colourful Classrooms, following over a decade at PwC, to help build emotional resilience in young people. Kate is a speaker at our webinar on developing Confidence and Self Esteem taking place on the 8th June .
What’s really going on when you feel anxious about exams?
How do you feel about the fact that GCSEs and A levels have been cancelled because of Covid-19? You may feel a sense of relief but if like a marathon runner you have been in training for months for this, you may feel kind of cheated by what’s happened. Whatever your position: in the current education system, exams are a way of life and how you feel about them probably has a massive impact on how you perform. Let me explain more…
Trainers and facilitators know that if you review something immediately after you have learnt it and again within 24 to 48 hours of learning it and then again one to two weeks later, you are more likely to recall it. Adding to your notes as part of your review, doing a mind map and ultimately teaching someone else that same theory or idea, can lead to mastery. This requires discipline and persistence and if those qualities don’t come naturally to you then I recommend you break down the task into manageable chunks and give yourself a reward each time you complete a milestone. One of my daughters hates revising so she has a plan and takes regular breaks after completing a chunk and watches 15 minutes or so of her favourite TV show.
Why a review strategy is not enough…
Funnily enough I was a bit like “Perfect Peter” at school – Horrid Henry’s younger brother as created by Francesca Simon in the book series that later became a TV show and movie. I always did the homework and read around a subject and yet when it came to exams I never achieved what my teachers expected.
This is because performing well in exams is not just about your review and learning strategies, it’s as much about your mindset. When I was a teenager I had very little self-confidence. Often I was filled with fear and believed that I knew very little about any given subject and that the sheer volume I needed to learn felt insurmountable.
Build your mindset
Our thoughts, feelings and actions are all inter-related. What we think affects what we feel and do, what we feel affects what we think and do and what we do affects how we feel and think. The triangle diagram below outlines this more clearly. It is used in cognitive behaviour therapy and has been proven to support us in understanding how our thoughts, emotions and behaviours interact.
What this means is that if, like my former self, you think you don’t know enough this will mean that you feel apprehensive in exams, which will affect your ability to recall information. This response will provide your brain with the evidence that you know very little about your subject, which will make you feel even more anxious. So as you can see it becomes a vicious circle and the outcome is likely to be that you find it even more difficult to remember what you know.
On the other hand, if you follow the discipline of regularly reviewing, checking and adding to your notes, you can tell yourself that you know your work and that you feel confident about taking the exam. With a positive disposition I expect you will find it easier to recall what you know and helps you to remain calm and do well in the exam. Such an outcome supports your positive feelings and thoughts. This virtuous circle of positive reinforcement can explain why some people achieve better than expected in exams and why others, like me in the past, underperform.
In my case I believed I could not achieve much academically and my fear drove me into a state of panic in exams that meant I misread questions, spent too long on a question and generally self-sabotaged my ability to do well at exams. I realise now that I had performance anxiety and it is one of the main reasons I set up Colourful Classrooms, to stop this happening to others. One way to change this way of thinking is to become super aware of your thoughts and to ask yourself if they are true and to examine the evidence that proves what you are thinking. Often this is much easier with the help of someone else. This is also where the adage, “fake it until you make it” comes from.
The science behind the fake it until you make it strategy
Your mind does not know the difference between what is true and what is make believe. You can change how you feel with very small tweaks such as forcing yourself to smile even if you feel lousy. I am sure you can remember a time when a friend has really made you laugh even when you felt really low and how much better you felt afterwards. In fact as Dr Isha Gupta – a neurologist from IGEA Brain and Spine – explains, a smile spurs a chemical reaction in the brain which releases certain hormones including dopamine and serotonin. “Dopamine increases our feelings of happiness. Serotonin release is associated with reduced stress. Low levels of serotonin are associated with depression and aggression,” says Dr. Gupta. “Low levels of dopamine are also associated with depression.”
What if you feel chronically anxious?
For me this is where colour comes into it as often we need to go beyond the rational and logical. There are times when you feel overwhelmed by your emotions and the thought of making yourself smile seems ridiculous. At this point if I were to give you a spritz of Yellow Angel, the response would be similar to what happens when you water a flower that’s dehydrated. It revives and opens up to the world. This is a combination of smelling a wonderful smell that can perk up your spirits and it’s also working on your body at an energetic level. Think of it this way, you are more than your mind. We know from the research carried out by the Heartmath Institute over the last 25 years that the heart has 40,000 sensory neurons involved in relaying ascending information to the brain. Research explains how the physical and energetic heart plays an extraordinary role in our lives! Our heart rhythms affect the brain’s ability to process information.
In colour terms, Yellow represents your mental energy and it also represents emotions such as fear and anxiety as well as joy. I like to think that fear and joy are two sides of the same coin. You need both emotions to move forward. What we are here to learn, in part, is how to hold such opposing feelings. Think about it; fear can often protect you and motivate you into doing revision. If you then achieve the task that you were worried about you may well feel joy and elation.
People often talk about things being right or wrong but what if they just are? In other words, instead of having black and white with shades of grey you have shades of colour…
We summarise all this in the programmes that we run in schools with the mantra for Yellow, You will find your power when you overcome your fear. To conclude confidence comes when you believe in yourself and you have trust in YOU. This starts by questioning the fears that you have, to find out if they are real; changing your thoughts and internal dialogues to more positive ones, which affects how you feel and ultimately how you perform. Colour provides a way to help you get there much faster. If you want more tips then check out my new YouTube channel and specifically the Rainbow Resilience playlist.