Managing exam time stress: How to help students harness their inner ‘Chatter’

This week I had the chance to read Ethan Kross’ book Chatter: The voice in our head, why it matters, and how to harness it, and it struck quite a few chords with me.

The premise of the book is to examine the silent conversations that people have with themselves, and consider how to channel this voice constructively. Kross starts out by refuting the idea that self-reflection/introspection in terms of reflecting on our own thoughts and feelings is always the best way to analyse and solve our own problems. Rather, it can actually do more harm than good. 

This is because ‘our thoughts too often don’t save us from our thoughts…’

This intrigued me.

Instead, when we pay too much attention to our thoughts and feelings, we allow ourselves to give rise to ‘chatter’. Chatter consists of ‘the cyclical negative thoughts and emotions that turn our singular capacity for introspection into a curse rather than a blessing. It puts our performance, decision making, relationships, happiness, and health in jeopardy’. This is because we can allow our inner voice to go off track and ruminate on bad feelings, exacerbating them.

What I found really interesting about this book is that whilst there has been a big shift towards meditation and ‘living in the present’ (which certainly has many positive benefits), Kross explains that this actually runs counter to our biology. In fact, research has shown that we spend between ⅓ to ½ of our waking life not living in the present. We actually live a significant amount of our life ‘in the mind’ transporting back and forth between our past and future, whilst navigating being in the present. 

And as we do that, we talk to ourselves. 

Whilst this inner voice is pretty useful and functioning the majority of the time, at times of stress it can lead us to ruminate on or compulsively replay past events, or imagine all of the possible things that could go wrong. 

Just this week I gave a presentation to parents, during which technology could not have failed more spectacularly, despite what I believed was avid preparation. Passwords for online systems failed, no-one could see anything on the projector, people struggled to connect to the wifi… it was just shy of a complete DISASTER! It felt like I spent the whole session apologising, and rushing around trying to fix all of these errors, just so people could follow my presentation. 

It was one of those moments that for a couple of years I will feel hot just thinking about!

The truth is I was prepared, but things went wrong anyway, and I ended up not being able to sleep properly for about two nights afterwards. If the world had ended right then… I’d probably have been ok with it.

I thought ‘that was the first impression people will have of you… and you looked incompetent and unprepared’, ‘are you sure you should be doing this job?’

I was pinballing between bad and worse emotions, and was becoming paralysed by my own voice.

The following few days I thought ‘I’m just going to play it safe from now on, and not put myself out there again… better to not embarrass myself right?’

Well… wrong actually, and this is why I loved this book – it forced me to look at how I could better manage this chatter.

A common human drive that we all experience is that when we are upset we want to talk to someone – we feel compelled to share our bad experiences with others. The more intense the experience was, the greater the need to talk about it… and then talk about it again…. and then maybe a few days later, talk about it some more (unless it’s something that causes us to feel shame or relates to trauma).

The thing is, the inner voice that gets so worked up and spills out into the verbal stream that we share (often with the empathetic listeners in our life) actually acts as a social repellant… people can only listen to, or absorb, so much venting. Add social media into the mix, and this is amplified even further. I’m sure we can all think of people that we have unfollowed because they just got a bit ‘too much’.

Although we have a drive to share our experiences with others, it doesn’t always help us. There are so many examples to draw on in this book, but what it makes me think about at the moment is the chatter that I often witness happening for students around exam time…

‘I can’t do this, I just don’t get it… everyone is doing better than me’, ‘why can’t I do this… I must be stupid’, ‘I know I’m going to mess up, I always do in exams, I just can’t do them’.

Our inner voice runs rife when we are tested, and at eighteen years old, exams are often the biggest challenge that they have faced yet. Combine this with the stress of university applications, with any rejection they receive serving to stoke the negative inner fire that is already raging, and this is a potent combination to work with. 

With this in mind, I wanted to share 3 pieces of advice that I have taken from this book that I will be sharing with my Sixth Form students in the next few weeks leading up to exams (also if you hadn’t already picked up my excitement about the book – I’d definitely recommend reading it!):

  1. Create distance. When a stressful conversation comes up in your mind, you can create distance with your chatter by either using your name, or the second person ‘you’. If you have a bad exam, rather than zoning in on detrimental ‘I’ statements, change your language to dampen the rumination – think about how you would advise a friend and then apply it to yourself (I’m in my thirties and i can still hear my Mum’s voice now).

‘Sarah, I know this was a difficult exam for you, but you managed to answer section 1 and 2 well and your preparation was good. What can you do to focus on the exams ahead of you now?

  1. Normalise. Know that you are not the only person that feels a certain way, and that what you are experiencing is simply a characteristic of the wider human experience. I was inspired this week by a post that I saw on Linkedin where students at Shrewsbury International School in Bangkok were encouraged to post their rejection letters from universities on a wall in school (deleting their name if they would prefer), so that they would understand that this was a ‘normal’ part of the application process. This inspired a talk that I had with my students this week which started off something like… ‘there are 3 guarantees in life… death, taxes and failure’. Not quite as moving as the idea of having a wall that normalises rejection, but what it did allow me to talk about was this idea that we can’t run away from rejection. In fact, we can do everything right and still get rejected… by someone that we like, by a friend, by a university or by an employer. The silence around rejection is where the shame creeps in, and by exposing our failures and rejections, or sharing these with others, we can feel less alone, and even bonded by this shared experience. 
  1. Rituals, routines and lucky charms. From prehistoric tribes to modern day athletes, routines and rituals have forever served a purpose in our lives. They are a way to exert some control over something that we can’t possibly have full control over. Whether those rituals are to ward off predators before going out to hunt, or whether they be the small quirky actions that athletes do before or during a game or match. On one level we know that tennis players compulsively readjusting their uniform (such as Rafa Nadal) can’t possibly make him play better. Or can it? The mind is a powerful tool and if we can encourage students to tap into things that they most likely already do to calm their nerves, then perhaps they can harness these actions to quiet their chatter before a big exam. 

The inner voice that we possess can be what tears us down, or it can be the thing that allows us to become our very best. I very much look forward to sharing some of the ideas in this book with my students, in the hope that they tap into the ideas that make sense for them. Equally, I look forward to going on this journey with them, and learning how to harness my own inner voice for better.

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