It’s this time of the year! Again! Another examination period is coming and with that stress, pressure, anxiety, lack of sleeping or bad eating habits appear. Is this normal? Well, if you take it from the brain’s point of view, yes! Stress is the mental and physical state we face when we feel that something threatens us. We may feel either nervous for a short amount of time while excessive stress means that we put our body and our brain in a position to always feel sad and scared. Feeling already stressed?
By Tanya Livarda (BA/ MA in TESOL,Delta,CELTA) EFL teacher, Oral Examiner
Good news! Our brain has the tendency or better the mechanisms to keep us safe and sensible all the time. Therefore, what it does is that when we experience stressful situations it speeds up our heart beat in order to increase blood flow, it speeds up our breathing in order to receive more oxygen. Furthermore, when our brain detects stress it releases, through a process, cortisol into our body. Cortisol is the stress hormone and it is the one that gives the body the message to perform the above actions. However, it is normal to be stressed for a short period of time as this is what alerts us.
Now the bad news! Stress is also detected by amygdala, a tiny part in our brain. Amygdala is connected with the prefrontal cortex which is in turn responsible for our logical thoughts, analytical thinking, and decision making. The prefrontal cortex is responsible for controlling our response to stress. In other words, our prefrontal cortex helps the amygdala to ‘decide’ how we are going to view the particular stressful event, either as frustrating and threatening or as something that will pass quickly (Bezdek & Telzer, 2017).
Having illustrated the stress journey in our body, it can be concluded that we should use our superhero- brain- in order to manage our stress. Our body knows how to deal with stress but our brain needs some tiny, little help.
Coming back to exams! A really stressful situation for both teachers and students. No matter how experienced we are and no matter how many times we have taken an exam ourselves, we will always feel stressed. But why?
First of all, because we evaluate ourselves based on the percentages of the ‘pass’ rates we have obtained in the exams. However, if you evaluate the effectiveness of a teacher based on how many students have passed the exams, then perhaps you should reconsider some things as this causes stress. Another major stressor is parents. Our main stakeholders, our main clients. They want it all and they want it now! Most of the time, they do not know how to express their needs and they provide vague comments like ‘Oh I know the neighbor of my cousin’s mother-in-law that lives there has taken the exam in three months not in one and a half year!’ and we are trying to use our prefrontal cortex and to respond logically to something that does not make sense. And our superhero –our brain- needs desperately help!
And then, our lovely students! No one asks them, unfortunately, and they view exams as the end of their life (why? why? why?) and they wish to show to their parents that they can. They are overwhelmed with stress, they experience panic attack, they lack sleep, they do not eat properly, they are constantly fighting with their parents. They are worried because they feel that they might fail, some of them must get a certain result, they study mechanically and not deeply, they lack confidence. And then again we are trying to be like magicians, to act as if we were clowns, to turn the world upside down, just because of the exams?
Do all these exist because of the teenager hormones (the easy excuse), because of the stress, or perhaps because they haven’t learnt how to manage their stress, or because the connection that we talked about earlier is not mature enough?
And now you are going to think! Am I also going to do that? If you think we teach what we preach. Not only do you make your students’ life easier and as much stress-free as possible but our lives as well.
Let’s go back to our superhero! The one that needs help dealing with excessive stress! The most important thing for me is to boost our prefrontal cortex. In a nutshell, prefrontal cortex is responsible for focusing on a task, predicting, anticipating, logical thinking, planning, managing impulses, controlling stress. Our superhero also needs support from other people, as it is sociable and it learns from other people.
So what can we do? (These apply to both teachers and students)
- Two brains are better than one. If you are struggling, if you are stressed, let people know. These can be either your friends, siblings, teachers. Don’t be afraid to open up and express your feelings.
- You may also find it useful to be in a study group/ a teachers group. Working through problematic areas with other people is really helpful as you listen to how other people have experienced exams.
- Be kind and believe in yourself! Think about what you have done so far. Remember your strengths! If parents persist, tell them what their kids have achieved so far, and let them know what you expect from their kids. The most important is that your students can also discuss this with their parents as well. Our students are going to take the exam, after all!
- Have fun! Exam classes can be a lot of fun! Remember that your life does not consist only of exams! Find a funny video, talk about social issues, create a project/video and enjoy! This can reduce your stress levels, and it allows you to take some time off the exams.
- Eat, eat and eat! Our brain is like a machine. It needs fuel. Proper food rich in vitamins is the best choice. And of course chocolate!
- Sleep well! At least 8 hours!
- Exercise or do what you like! It will leave you calm, fresh and energetic.
- Relaxation techniques or mindfulness.
- Set realistic goals. At the beginning of the school year or even several weeks before the exam set realistic and SMART goals. It helps you to put everything into perspective. It is also a way to accept the situation and look at the reality not the fantasy.
- Break your stress down! If you are experiencing it at any point, stop, take a breath and break it down. Does your stress make sense to you? If yes, look for the solution…because every problem has its own solution.
- Take short breaks, manage your time. Use the Pomodoro technique (a time management technique in which you focus on your work for 25 minutes and then you have a five-minute break and then again you focus on your work for another 25 minutes) or whatever works for you!
- The most important one is to strengthen our and our students’ prefrontal cortex. Therefore, we can incorporate games like word games, memory games, puzzles, to let our students learn something new, to critically think about a topic or question, to debate, create silly sentences, acronyms, cartoons to remember things.
- Communicate effectively with the parents. Be honest! If they cannot understand then move on!
Unfortunately, exams exist and they will exist! And I am not only talking about school exams! Life doesn’t always go to plan, but at the end of the day everything is going to be ok. What matters most is the ability to explore our options clearly and take your time until you proceed with plan B,C,D,E,F….. . Nothing is impossible!
Bezdek, K., Telzer, E., (2017), Have No Fear, the Brain is Here! How Your Brain Responds to Stress, Front. Young Minds, [Internet], Available from: https://kids.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/frym.2017.00071, [Accessed 11 December].