What should you do when your mind goes blank in an exam?
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You’re sitting in the exam room and your mind goes blank

It’s a feeling we have both experienced, probably more than once.  You prepared for this exam, knew your stuff last night, looked through the revision guide this morning.  Now the exam paper is in front of you and you remember nothing.  Why does your mind go blank in an exam?

The build up to the exam may have felt calm, but at some point your nerves have betrayed you.  You may have felt your heart rate beginning to speed up, your palms get sweaty, your feet not be able to keep still.  This is a physiological, or normal, response to being nervous.  But if you aren’t careful, this response can get out of control.  And that’s when you end up out of ideas on how to answer the questions you could have done the day before.

Your body’s primeval response to stress means your mind goes blank as you prepare to run away!

Our response to stress evolved in humans a long time ago as a means to ensure our survival.  When our ancestors were confronted with a dangerous situation, say being face to face with a huge grizzly bear, they had to escape fast to ensure their survival, and the survival of the species.  Those best adapted to do so were more likely to reproduce and pass on those successful characteristics to the next generation.

Our ancestors, when confronted with a grizzly bear experienced a response that prepared them to run away (flight) or fight the bear.  An area of their brain called the amygdala perceived the danger and sent a message, via other structures, saying ‘start making Adrenalin, we need to get out of here!’  Adrenalin has lots of effects on your body, including speeding up your heart rate and breathing rate.  This is so there’s enough oxygen getting to your muscles for them to work harder.  Your body is then primed for running away.

Trouble is, there’s no grizzly bear in your exam room and running away isn’t an option.  But your amygdala doesn’t know that, and your body’s response is the same.  Here’s the important bit – if you’re about to run away from a grizzly bear, you don’t need to remember what osmosis is, you don’t need to be creative or think about anything else.  So, those areas of your brain go into stand-by mode as resources are diverted to areas essential for survival.  Not good in an exam!

So that’s the reason your mind goes blank in an exam.  What can you do about it?

You can get back on track by breathing slowly

It’s difficult for your body to keep up it’s response to danger if it’s also receiving signals that you are relaxed.  Make a conscious effort to breathe slowly and you can fool your amygdala into standing down.  It might be difficult to do.  After all at the moment every cell in your body has been put on alert for that grizzly bear.  But by slowing down your breathing, even a little bit, you can reverse the stress response.  

Try it now and see how you feel.  Breathe in for a count of 4, and out for a count of 6.  If you repeat this a few times, you may well notice a calm that wasn’t there before.  If you practice this regularly, then when it comes time for that exam, or any other stressful situation, you will know exactly how to make yourself feel calmer. 

Reading the questions carefully and slowly

Now you are in a more relaxed state, the brain areas you need to do your best in your exam will start to come back on-line.  To help them out:

  • make sure you read the questions slowly and carefully.  
  • Underline or highlight the important parts – command words and instructions for example.
  • If you know the answer, write it down and move on.  If you don’t, move on anyway and come back to it later.  A part of your brain will be working on the problem still.  When you return to the question you are more likely to have an answer than if you sit staring at it (this is going to start that stress response again as you are aware of the time ticking away and start to panic about finishing).

And keep coming back to your breathing

Anytime you start to feel that stress and panic return, focus on slowing down your breathing for a few breaths, then get back to it.  Those few seconds resetting your amygdala by breathing slowly will allow your brain to switch back on and will help you to achieve success.

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