Ask The Expert
12th grade brain freeze
Dear Mr Hemmings – I am a 12th grade student and I really need some help. You see, in the past year I feel like my brain has stopped working! I’m so panicked about it, I can’t seem to perform like I did before and I’m so worried that I’m going to fail. I used to be great at maths, regularly scoring 90%, but now I don’t seem to be able to process even the simplest things. In fact, I feel it’s true for all of my subjects and I’m scared I won’t be able to do well in my final exams. I know I sound like a dramatic teenager, but can you help?
Hi – thanks for getting in touch, you’ve highlighted an issue that so many young people are dealing with at the moment; the panic and stress they feel when it comes to exams. Believe me when I say, you are not being dramatic – this is a real problem for many gifted young people and it comes from the pressure of expectation and the worry that they might not live up to expectations.
We often attach negative connotations to the word ‘stress’, because we associate it with feeling overwhelmed. However, when it comes to rising to a challenge, some ‘stress’ is required to make us perform our best; It helps us think on our feet and ‘pull it out of the bag’ just at the right moment. When those levels of stress exceed our need, the body behaves in a very different way. Too much stress tends to prompt changes in our behavior as a response. Reaching for unhealthy sugar-laden foods, drinking too much caffeine, not getting enough exercise or sleep – all of these behaviors kick in and can compound the problem. Added to this, when we experience high amounts of stress a hormone called cortisol is released into our bodies, conspiring to cause something called ‘brain fog’. From your description of what you’ve been experiencing, this sounds like it might apply to you. Brain fog means you can’t quite focus on anything and is often associated with high levels of anxiety caused by stress.
It’s very unlikely that you are going to become less academically capable in this short space of time. I think it’s far more likely that you are perceiving your coming exams as a ‘threat’ and your body is responding accordingly. When I say ‘threat’, I mean that your feelings of stress are being caused by a number of exam related feelings. Your anxiety levels are high because you are worried about the consequences of failure; the fallout being that you might feel you have let people down and that you yourself will feel judged and your self-esteem will take a battering.
The first thing you need to do is acknowledge to yourself how you are actually feeling. It’s okay to feel nervous about your future. This is a pivotal time in your life, but it’s all about getting things into perspective and creating balance and there is a great deal you can actively do to achieve that. In fact, the process of fostering this sense of balance will shift your focus away from the fear of the exam itself and put you more in control. So, make a plan. How are you going to eat healthily, get enough sleep and build in enough downtime and exercise? All of these things will decrease your levels of stress and when that happens the feeling of your brain ‘not working’ will diminish. The human brain is a highly complex thing, yet we often treat it with a distinct lack of regard! Feed your brain, allow it some time to relax and recharge and make sure that you develop a balanced work/revision plan and you will get back to your best. And don’t forget, no matter what happens in an exam, you will still be here and still have a future to develop and to think of after it.
Russell is an expert in social anxiety, confidence, concentration, perfectionism, laziness, gadget addiction, study focus, procrastination and time management.
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