Lackluster meals, disturbed sleep and one very busy library: it’s exam time and the stress is mounting. While students search for resources to help them prepare and cope with upcoming exams, they often ignore post-exam stress. Some students may feel relieved, confident and pleased to be done with their exams. Nevertheless, for many students, feelings of regret often cloud and influence their perception of the results. These students are unable to see past the few marks they missed and immediately imagine worst-case — and highly improbable — consequences: “There’s no way I passed,” or “I’m going to flunk out of school.” If this sounds familiar, consider the following coping strategies.
According to Bill Howatt, stressful events cause the body’s nervous system to release stress hormones. “When your body releases these chemicals again and again because of feelings of stress – and there's no immediate physical threat – this response can trigger symptoms such as anxiety” he wrote in a recent Globe and Mail article. In order to take charge of these responses, Howatt recommends first, to let yourself accept the situation. Take a moment, not a long one, and acknowledge how you feel. If you need to cry, do it. If you need to take a nap, go for it. Allow your body to react how it wants to react and do not judge yourself for its response.
Leave the outlines alone
Try to fight the urge to compare your answers with others or seek the answers in your notes. If you suffer from post-exam stress, it is less likely that you are thinking clearly and logically after the exam is finished. Furiously searching for the answers will have no effect on your grades. You may notice concepts you overlooked or rules you missed, forgetting that most questions can have a variety of interpretations. It will make you feel like you did worse than you actually did.
Do something you love
If you find your mind starting to spiral out of control, keep busy. Think of an activity that makes you happy. Have a good meal, watch your favourite movie or hang out with a friend to keep your mind occupied. If you have a close friend you can confide in, talk it out and really listen to their words of encouragement. Then, move on.
If you like exercise, even better! When we place our body under physical stress, it releases endorphins. These endorphins react with the receptors in your brain and create euphoric-like feelings. A good workout can greatly diminish anxious thoughts and even serve to boost your energy.
When those anxious thoughts sound like a broken record, stop them in their tracks. As I’ve mentioned before, meditation or mindfulness forces us to slow our thoughts and focus on the immediate present. Bob Stahl stated in an article that mindfulness is “being here and now without judgment.” When working with anxiety mindfully he recommends setting an intention, keeping an open mind, having patience, acknowledging the anxiety and letting go of self-criticism. With enough practice, we can learn to control our thoughts and those burgeoning feelings of stress.
Come back to reality
It’s important to recognize that once the exam is over you have no control over the grade — it is out of your hands. Have a little perspective. Even if you do perform poorly, it is one grade in one course and your chances to recover your average are good. Your value as a human is unaffected. Consider all of your accomplishments that brought you to law school in the first place. Are you going to let a two-hour exam define your law school career?
At the end of the day, know that many of your peers are going though the same thing. Try to put some of these tips in action. Stress is not going anywhere — especially on this career path. However, post-exam stress and anxious feelings that manifest from situations beyond your control should be nothing but a manageable, momentary setback. By practising stress management now, your reaction to future situations will become habitual and — most importantly — healthier.
Good luck on your exams and enjoy the holidays!