Today, joining us is Brooke Baker a psychotherapist in San Diego, CA. Brooke specializes in anxiety disorders, mood disorders, and addiction and is giving us some insight on surviving exam anxiety. Welcome, Brooke!
It’s that beloved (oops, I mean dreaded) time of year…exam time. When you read those two words, your heart rate likely sped up, you probably got an uncomfortable pang in your stomach, and your breath got shallower. This, dear law students, is what’s known as anxiety. To break it down even further, it’s the fight or flight response or the sympathetic nervous system kicking in. Why does this happen more importantly – what do we do when this happens? Well, keep reading and I’ll tell you!
When we have anxiety, the brain and the body perceives a threat – that there’s imminent danger. Obviously when we go to take an exam we’re not at risk for physical harm, however, our brain sees what is significant to us the same way. Obviously with exams, there’s a lot at stake. It’s so important to you because the outcome is profoundly connected to your future goals. For some, the feeling underneath is “I will die if I don’t pass!” It makes sense why this would cause anxiety!
This fight or flight response is helpful – and necessary – when we’re in actual danger. Clearly what’s bad about having anxiety at other times, is that this physiological response makes it extremely difficult, if not impossible, to use your brain in the way you need to in the moment, right? All that information you crammed in there to prepare is suddenly gone. It’s like our brains go off-line when this happens, and in a sense it actually does. Here’s what’s happening: When our sympathetic system gets activated, our brain prepares the body for fighting or for fleeing. Systems we usually use go into a different mode. For instance, our digestive system and our breath slow down because digestion and deep breathing aren’t useful during fight or flight. Our executive functioning also shuts down because we don’t need that either. The pre-frontal cortex of the brain gets flooded with cortisol and functions such as memory, concentration, and problem-solving get turned off. They’re simply not available to us as long as we remain in this state. This explains why our minds go blank when we are anxious.
So let me tell you the good news. There’s a way to help your brain come back online without even taking a pill. I think you’ll be surprised that it doesn’t have to do with how you talk to yourself either– well, it does, but it’s not where we start. It has to do with activating the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) – this is our relaxed state. When we’re anxious, the muscles are very tense and the pelvic floor, specifically, tightens up and puts pressure on a very important nerve that runs along our spine, called the Vagus nerve. This nerve is responsible for activating the PNS, but this poor nerve can’t do its job if the muscles are gripping it. So if we want our brains to come back on-line – the trick is to relax the muscles.
Relax the muscles →
Loosen the grip on the Vagus nerve →
The Vagus nerve activates the PNS →
Systems return to normal – including the pre-frontal cortex’s important executive functioning
Your next question is probably – how do I relax my muscles? Well, fortunately, there’s lots of easy ways. If you’re a yoga practitioner – yay! If you’re not, seriously look into it! Yoga not only teaches us relaxation through a moving meditation, but you also get the opportunity to learn and practice diaphragmatic breathing. This type of deep breathing helps us calm the nervous system in a matter of seconds and you can do it anywhere you are. Also, progressive muscle relaxation is a good tool. If you search for progressive muscle relaxation online, you’ll find lots of good guided videos for this. It’s basically the process of starting at the head and deliberately tensing each muscle group as tight as you can and holding them for a few seconds before releasing and relaxing them. Another great way to relax your muscles in the moment is just by bringing your awareness to the areas of tension in your body and gently asking them to relax. Practicing the skill of mindfulness will help you learn how to tune into your body and notice where you feel tense.
I just gave you a very brief rundown of a few skills you can use for muscle relaxation. I can’t tell you enough how helpful they are if you consistently and persistently practice them. And in other good news, we can actually train the brain to be less anxious in the first place, but it usually requires some more involved personal work. Working with a therapist can be really useful if you want to take your stress and anxiety management to the next level.
I hope this information helps and I wish you all the best with your exams this season and going forward!
Brooke Baker is a psychotherapist in San Diego, CA. Brooke specializes in anxiety disorders, mood disorders, and addiction. She provides in-person therapy for adults in San Diego and also teletherapy for individuals all throughout California and Washington DC where she also holds a license. If you’re interested in working with her, please visit her website for more information: www.brookebakertherapy.com.
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