Exams. We all have to go through them one way or another. Some can breeze through them like nothing – some, who have never opened a book the entire year and missed most classes, will go into that exam room and come out with an A+ like it is nothing. Then again, there are some who study every day of the year and are not even late for class a single time, and yet they go into the exam room and leave with an F. Most of us, I think, are somewhere in the middle of those two extremes.
I have occasionally been in the latter group and left with a rather bitter feeling of having utterly wasted my time and a big F. The first group? I can’t even imagine what life is like for those kinds of people. I doubt I ever will.
What really affected me throughout my life has been exam anxiety, however. God, have I struggled with it. When I was younger it was so bad I got medication from my doctor to calm me down before exams. I would go into the preparation room, get my question and break down crying without even reading it, then go into the examination and cry my way through that and leave with an F. It was bad and at the time, wildly embarrassing.
I have taken many, many courses on how to handle exam anxiety and been taught to focus on my breathing or imagine I am a tree with roots deep into the ground and all sorts of different techniques – all with various degrees of success. Nothing really cured me of it, but the medication did help for a while.
When I was at university I was still getting through exams with the medication, I was getting something called beta blockers, which help with anxiety. I hated taking it and I hated feeling so bad before exams. Once I got really drunk the night before an exam because I was very worried and I was hoping maybe I could be too tired and hung over the next day to be worried at the exam – needles to say, it didn’t work at all. I was just really scared and felt sick at the same time. Don’t do that. It was a really bad idea, but guys, I was just desperate.
When I was on exchange in Japan I wasn’t just graded by a single exam as I am in my own country, instead we were graded by our attendance in class, our participation in class, our assignments and or midterms and final exams – everything played a part in the professors evaluation and that made me a lot less worried. I knew that even if I failed my final exam or my midterms, I would still be able to pass the course if I studied hard during the semester and attended all the classes actively. Would you be surprised to know that I went from being a student who barely passed my courses to become an almost straight A student?
When my friends heard about the change in my grades they ridiculed me and told me it was proof that the education system in Japan was lacking in substance compared to our education system and a lot of such nonsense. I was a bit sad at the time, but I believed them. I thought that obviously they had to be right, but when I returned home my grades dropped to the level before I was in Japan.
In reality, I was and still am a very hard-working student, but I just suck at exams. Or, that is, I used to suck at exams. Things are getting better, but at the time, I was too naïve to think my friends could be wrong or mean. Do you think those people are still people I call friends? Well, no, they are no longer my friends nor do I ever want them back into my life. That’s a different story, however, so let’s save that for another time.
I returned home from Japan and my grades dropped. I was less worried about exams, however, since in Japan I had reached a point where I could get through the exam without beta blockers and that for me felt like a win. I was improving! If I managed to not cry during the exam, it was another win. Years later when I returned to Japan to study for my masters, I had reached a point where I didn’t even cry before, during or after the exam.
The fact is, it didn’t even matter how good or bad my grades were – on my final exam in psychology when I was in high school (well, our equivalent to high school) I miraculously got an A+ and broke down in tears right away. I continued to cry for a good while after, simply because I was relieved and happy. Back then all my exams were hit or miss. Either I would go in, cry and fail it or barely get through it, or I would go in and ace it by random chance.
When I returned to Japan my grades skyrocketed again and I got almost straight A’s the entire year. By this time, I had started working on myself in different ways – I was trying to work through some of the bad experiences and traumas of my past, just like I was working on sorting through my friends. I guess, many of those I used to call friends were never what you would actually call friends. They were people who would use me in whatever way they could or enjoy that I was different and odd and that they could easily make fun of me without me even realising. I had started to see that they were not good people and I no longer wanted people like that in my life. Extracting myself from such acquaintances did not come without a price, it turned out, because friends seem to sometimes come as a package deal. Buy one, get the rest for free. If I wanted to be free, I had to remove myself not just from being near some individuals, I had to remove myself from entire friend circles and I struggled with this for a long time.
In the end, I decided that if I could only be friends with some of the nicer people as long as I had to interact with people who continuously hurt me, then they were not worth it. I deserve to be around people who are not actively harming me or my sense of self-worth. I deserve to be around kind people who treat others with respect. So do you. You deserve to have good people in your life, but choosing this can be oddly difficult. It is hard to do, but trust me when I say life is better with good people around you instead of toxic people who make you feel like shit.
If you are worried that you won’t have anyone – I know for sure I was terrified of being all alone – then I can only tell you how I overcame that fear. Hmm. Truth be told, I don’t actually think I ever overcame it. Not really. I am still afraid sometimes that I will be all alone and no one will ever truly care about me, but being around those toxic and hurtful people ended up being even worse than any fear I had. I realised that I would rather be alone for the rest of my life than be near those people, because at least when I am alone I can work on being as happy as possible. When around those people, any little spark of happiness they would instantly kill. It just isn’t worth it.
So, you might ask yourself what on earth all this has to do with exam anxiety?
Turns out, the people you surround yourself with greatly affect your state of mind. Who would have known? Oh, right, we all sort of know this already, don’t we?
It wasn’t something I was able to do in one swift moment, it wasn’t a single choice of who I wanted to be friends with and who I wanted to leave behind, no. It was several years of slowly dis-entangling myself from people I didn’t like to be around. Some friend circles I ended up leaving completely, but it wasn’t easy for me to do. I also met new people, but I hadn’t learned how to choose my friends, only how to leave if they were hurting me. I had to learn how to choose if I even wanted to be friends with someone or not, before it got to the stage where I was hurt or abused. I couldn’t figure it out, so I stopped trying.
Once I broke free from all of those people, I was very much alone for a pretty long time. No friends, no social interactions – in some ways, I was quite peaceful. It coincided with a breakup from a ex who abused me and covid-19 lockdown. I needed to heal on many levels and as I was working on healing myself, I realised that I had been hurt in ways I hadn’t realised at the time. Every time I was able to heal a little, a new seemingly still fresh wound would appear. I was afraid I would never truly heal, but now I have healed enough to know that even if I never heal completely, every little bit of healing makes my life a little easier, a little happier and a little better. So, every little step towards healing is worth it.
Now to the fun part – exams. No, no matter what exams will never really be the fun part, but I am trying to make myself believe that they can be. Last week I had an exam and yes, I was a little nervous, but more than anything I felt somewhat excited. Not that I was happy I had an exam, but it didn’t feel like a negative experience either. I have changed and so my experience of exams has also changed. I didn’t do very well, but I didn’t do very badly either – I am the perfectly cliché average student right now, and that is honestly a very happy thing for me.
I didn’t realise at the time, it wasn’t until after the exam that I realised that I had barely been worried at all. The people I chose to have around me now, well, I know they are an improvement to the people I used to call friends, but it’s not just that. It’s me, I see myself differently.
I don’t know why you suffer from exam anxiety if you do, but I realised, that I the reason I was suffering from the crazy fear and anxiety related to exams was quite different from what I originally thought. It wasn’t just the people I was around, it was simply that I was constantly worried I wasn’t good enough – and not just about exams, but in every single aspect of my life.
As I have healed more, been more careful in selecting the people I call friends, I worked on bringing more happiness into my life. I became happier. I am no longer afraid of being alone all my life, because I have experienced being alone for a long time and I know that the true source of my happiness lies within myself. Knowing this, not just with my head, but feeling it deep inside my heart and soul, has changed me. I am afraid of making mistakes and failing exams, but not in the same way. I know that failing an exam or making a mistake doesn’t prove that I have no worth or that I am doomed to be alone forever. I know that only I can take responsibility for my own happiness and have no control over the actions of other people – only my own choices. That, oddly, is enough for me to no longer feel the same level of fear.
I was never afraid of success or failure; I was hurting on the inside and somehow the exam situation triggered all that pain inside of me and brought it out to the surface. Working on healing myself has had the strange side effect that I am letting go of fears and worries that I assumed, I would have to learn to live with forever.
I guess, what I really wanted to say is that sometimes the root of our anxiety, our worries and fears comes from a place we can’t find before we start healing and that all we can really do is work with what we have. I will continue trying to heal and now, as I work on healing myself from my traumas, I can do this work with a greater sense of purpose and hope because I know the results may be better than I ever dreamed they would.
If you read everything this time, thank you for taking the time to do so. This post is slightly longer than usual, but I had a lot to say and didn’t want to split this post into several. I may write more on this topic in the future, so do let me know if there is anything in particular you want to know more about.
If you yourself are struggling, I wish you all the best on your path towards healing and hope this post can give you a greater sense of purpose when you encounter moments of trouble and pain while healing.