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The secret to staying calm under pressure

The way you respond to pressure says a lot about you. Do you remain cool in a heated situation, or do you explode at the first sign of stress? It turns out there are some pretty complex reasons behind your behaviour. If you struggle to stay calm under pressure there are tools you can use to cope, which have many benefits, particularly as exams loom.

What drives our response to stress?

Our stress levels can rise and fall across our lives, but major life events such as births, deaths, divorce, exams and employment changes can be particularly testing. According to psychologist Amanda Dudley, lecturer in Deakin University’s School of Psychology, the reasons why we respond to stress in certain ways is multilayered and at the mercy of many factors.

‘We are affected by our genetic make up, our personality, temperament and cognitive factors such as perception, cognitive bias and thinking style as well as social aspects including previous life events, social supports and circumstances,’ she explains.

‘All humans have a stress response mechanism known as the ‘fight/flight response,’ Dudley adds, and highlights Dr Salvatore Maddi, founder of the Hardiness Institute who’s completed extensive studies into the ways people cope with pressure. Maddi coined the term HardiAttitudes, and argued that when people who are committed to striving through hard times tried to influence outcomes and challenge stressful situations, rather than lapsing into passivity they were more likely to handle stress better.

Why are exams so stressful?

‘Almost everyone feels nervous before an exam,’ Dudley explains. Exams can be stressful for a number of reasons such as people having high expectations on themselves, comparing themselves to others and the period of uncertainty between completing the exam and getting the results.

But it’s important to manage the stress as much as possible, because it can have an impact on results. When we’re stressed, ‘Our ability to think clearly is impacted, and concentration and problem-solving skills weakened. We also release a stress hormone called cortisol,’ Dudley says, and points out that elevated cortisol interferes with our memory as well as our immune system.

She highlights pilots as the perfect example of people who are able to stay alert without getting stressed. ‘Remaining calm allows them to be able to respond in the best possible way and go through a step by step process to work through the dilemma. This rational approach means they can communicate to staff and passengers, review their pilot materials and take the necessary steps required,’ Dudley says.

She adds that students need to take the same approach and be alert without getting overwhelmed if they want to be at their best on exam day.

How to remain calm when stress levels rise

Sometimes stress is inevitable, but according to Dudley the key to managing and reducing stress is spotting the signals early. Some of the signs might be something that you feel, like an increase in heart rate, an increase in ‘worrying’ thoughts or an anxious feeling.

Dudley’s tips for reducing stress before it takes hold include:

Relaxation: listen to music, take a bath or do some deep breathing exercises.

Exercise: this will release endorphins and has both mental and physical benefits.

Using a mantra: say a word such as ‘relax’ or ‘calm’ over and over in your head.

Positive self-talk: say things that reduce worry such as ‘I can do this’ or ‘it will be ok’.

Maintain a healthy lifestyle: eat well, get plenty of sleep and stay hydrated.

Pleasant events: keep making time for friends, family and hobbies during stressful times.

Time management: stay organised and don’t take on too much.

You’re not on your own

When you’re feeling stressed or overwhelmed, it’s important to know there are plenty of resources to help you manage. Headspace has a range of suggestions for students, and don’t forget the power of just having a conversation with a family member or friend you trust to fall back on.

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Amanda Dudley
Amanda Dudley

Psychologist and Lecturer, School of Psychology, Faculty of Health, Deakin University

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