Apocalypse to Camelot

How to turn exam stress around.

Exams. One of the four Horsemen of the School Apocalypse, along with Revision, Study Leave, and Results.

Whether it's GCSEs, or A Levels; mocks or the real thing; and whether you're an anxious parent or a stressed student: the spring and summer months will be overshadowed by this cloud.

What do those words make you think and feel? If you're anything like me, I get feelings of boredom, frustration, fear, and guilt. The words look and feel heavy to me; black, deathly silent, dense and impenetrable; like a thick cloud surrounding my head, weighing me down; like there's no way through. (I'm making myself feel slightly shaky even at this thought, over twenty years after my last school exams.)

You may not have noticed it, but our brain creates these associations for everything: it's a way it stores and sorts information.

And it will use all of your senses to do so: some thoughts and feelings will be visual, with colours and shapes (think of your favourite food: you are likely to be seeing a clear, bright, colourful image right in front of you). And some thoughts will have sounds, smells, tastes, textures or even sensations attached (think of a hot cup of tea or coffee - you are likely to be feeling the warmth associated with this thought, maybe even seeing or feeling the steam rising from the cup).

Your brain does this for abstract things as well as real objects. Things like Exams, Revision, Study Leave and Results.

But amazingly, you can change the way you feel just by changing the associations that your brain attaches to these thoughts.

What would be the opposite for me to the boredom, frustration, fear and guilt that are conjured up by the Four Horsemen? I think, optimism. Optimism that I am going to be able to get through it; optimism that I will get it done; optimism that it will be alright in the end. (Or optimism that my child will be OK - optimism will be helpful whether you're going through it yourself, or watching a loved one do so.)

So what does optimism look like to me? Very different to my heavy, black, impenetrable cloud: optimism feels like a bright golden glow, sparkling and shimmering, light as a feather. It feels strong, powerful, and free.

I then imagine my black Apocalyptic cloud, and slowly lighten it, until it is bright and golden. I add sparkle and shimmer (always a favourite part). And I change its density, make it feel no longer heavy and impenetrable, but now feather-light, translucent and free. And, inevitably, it changes the way I feel about Exams, Revision, Study Leave and Results.

This process is quick and simple, but very powerful. Obviously it needs to be accompanied by actual revision and preparation for exams to go well. But revision is much more likely to happen, and much more likely to be effective, if it is undertaken with an approach of optimism than doom and gloom.

A final element: I think I need to re-frame my Four Horseman analogy, otherwise I will be leaving you with an image of the anthropomorphisation of Exams, Revision, Study Leave and Results astride fearsome horses and brandishing weapons with deadly intent. So instead, armour them in shining bright silver, make the horses white, add streaming colourful pennants. Make them the Knights of the Round Table, the epitome of courage and optimism.

And do as the Dalai Lama says: "choose to be optimistic - it feels better". Good luck.