When you are preparing for an exam, bring some self-compassion to the table

Attitude can make the big difference to how you feel and to how you approach upcoming challenges such as exams

For most teenagers, the big school exams of the year are months away. But that doesn’t prevent the stomach-clenching sensation that accompanies the realisation that the exams are starting to look like a herd of large and angry elephants thundering in your direction.

Once they were dots on the horizon: now you can see dust clouds kicking up around them.

This article isn’t about the practicalities of exam preparation – I was moderately good at exams myself, though I never hit the high numbers – but about attitude. Attitude can make the big difference to how you feel and to how you approach the upcoming challenge.

The key task is to distinguish what is in your control from what isn’t. Then work with what’s in your control.


Changing the past, when perhaps you did less study than you think you should have, is not in your control. What you’ll see in the exam paper when you open it is also not in your control. Neither can you dictate the marks you will get in the exam.

What’s in your control is the studying you do, starting now, and the mental preparation you bring to the task.

A powerful part of that preparation is to bring some self-compassion into the picture. People who are self-compassionate – adopting an attitude of kindness towards themselves – tend to be better at taking on challenges than those who are not. This might be because they know they are not going to give themselves an awfully hard time if things don’t work out.

In other words, if you are highly self-critical you can scare yourself off trying. But the self-compassionate person knows that when they look in the mirror they will see a friend looking back, even if their attempt didn’t work out – so it’s safe to try.

Think of self-compassion as talking to yourself in the same way a good friend might talk to you. And remind yourself that whatever happens you will still be your own best friend.

It’s also helpful to remember that however prepared or confident you may or may not be, hundreds of thousands – maybe millions – of students around the world are in the exact same situation. This can help to lower stress by reducing your sense of isolation.

Stress, I should add, gets in the way of learning as your nervous system goes into “fight or flight” mode. It’s as though it withdraws energy from learning and puts it into survival instead. Reducing stress means more energy for learning.

An important component of self-compassion is mindfulness. I referred at the start to that stomach-clenching sensation that can accompany the realisation that the elephants are stampeding towards you.

The dramatic scenarios that run through your mind, including scenarios of failure, make this worse. They involve stressful thoughts which, as I mentioned above, interfere with your learning.

The mindful approach is to avoid indulging these scenarios. Turn your mind away from them: they are about as helpful as a clown blowing a trumpet into your ear while you are trying to concentrate.

Ways to step out of these scenarios include:

– Notice your anxiety as a physical sensation. Physical sensations fade after a while – it’s the disaster scenarios you go through in your head that makes them worse.

– Move your awareness from your thoughts to the sensations in your feet.

– Take two or three breaths in which you count to seven as you breathe in and to 11 as you breathe out. Make these fairly quiet breaths – you don’t have to be dramatic about it. The out-breath has a calming effect on the nervous system and counting to 11 gives you a nice, long out-breath.

If you’re scaring yourself with imaginings of significant other people in your life being disappointed with your performance, remember this: The scariest critic you have might be yourself. So self-compassion can help to defuse your biggest critic.

It’s especially important, I think, to remember the first point I made: focus on what’s actually in your control to do. That’s the arena in which you can make your best choices.

– Padraig O’Morain (pomorain@yahoo.com, @PadraigOMorain) is accredited by the Irish Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy. His latest book is ‘Mindfulness for Worriers’. His daily mindfulness reminder is free by email.