“You may now turn over your exam paper and begin 10 minutes of reading time.”
The bored voice of the polytechnic invigilator echoed around the exam hall.
I had never done an exam in my life, and there I was at 18, about to sit an exam for a degree.
I sat there looking around as a sea of pimply, anxious faces frantically flipping over the A4 stack of paper that would consume their existence for the next 3 hours. There were one or two knowing smiles, a chorus of sighs, and one guy actually stood up and walked out, muttering “oh f***” over and over again with an expression on his face like he had just been told the final exam was to swallow a cactus whole.
That did nothing to calm my nerves, and I started panicking. My hands were so sweaty that I couldn’t even grip my pen.
Hmm, my pen. Did I have enough pens? What colour ink did they say was OK to use, and what ones were banned? Wait – did they want us to put our student ID’s on our desks now, or once the exam begins? Am I allowed to write on the scratch paper during reading time?
Hang on, what subject is this exam on? Computer hardware? Why did I decide to do this again? I wish I had just stayed at my old job stacking timber and selling concrete to under-qualified, over-optimistic weekend handymen… sure, it pays minimum wage, but at least I wouldn’t have to do this.
My anxiety levels were getting so high that I thought I was going to be the next one to mumble semi-coherent expletives and wander out of the room like a junkie on a bad trip.
Chances are, you’ve experienced anxiety as well – either dreading something that you have to do (sitting an exam, going to the dentist, attending an interview) or obsessing over something that you have done (worrying about the answers you gave in an exam / interview, etc.)
Anxiety is a very powerful emotion and it will wear you down, make you feel crappy and destroy your life if you let it. But there is a way to overcome it.
There are two ways that anxiety can ruin your life. The first is that you are so disturbed by anxiety that you try to avoid any and all situations that cause anxiety to you.
I’ve known people who do this.
They have decided not to further their education, despite wanting a specific career that requires a degree, because they don’t want to sit exams. Or, they stay in the same job that they hate for years because the lifestyle change of a new job would cause them anxiety, not to mention that they would have to go to an interview!
These people do not live. They exist. Clinging to a paradigm that they have created for themselves where they feel safe. The first sign of an extrinsic change to that safe space triggers a meltdown in them.
Those people are often beyond help. Unless they experience a mind-shift within them which allows them to accept discomfort and failure as part of life, they won’t be interested in any help.
Why? Because it would challenge their ideas and make them anxious, which they can’t stand. It’s a vicious cycle.
The other way anxiety can destroy your life is through time travel. I have some suggestions if you’re a time traveler.
When you are feeling anxious, where are you mentally? If your entire life was symbolised by a long, straight line with a red “You Are Here” arrow pointing to the present moment and slowly creeping right as you age, I can guarantee that when you feel anxious, your mind is not on the arrow. It is in the past, reliving what you said and how it may have been interpreted. It is in the future, worrying about what will happen next.
I’ll let you in on one of the greatest lessons that I ever learned about mental time travel.
The past and the future don’t really exist. They are just ideas.
Where is the past? Sure, you have memories. But where were you when you experienced what you are remembering? You were in the present. Where are you when you are remembering what happened? You are in the present.
Same goes for the future. The only time, the only moment where you can observe or change anything is in the present – the now.
So, if you can’t experience the past because it is just a memory, and you can’t experience the future because it is just a projection, why allow your consciousness and your focus to be diverted from the present?
“As soon as you honor the present moment, all unhappiness and struggle dissolve, and life begins to flow with joy and ease. When you act out the present-moment awareness, whatever you do becomes imbued with a sense of quality, care, and love – even the most simple action.” ― Eckhart Tolle
When you feel anxious, bring yourself mentally back to the “now”. Just be aware that you are aware. Focusing on your breathing is a good way to remain in the moment.
I learned another key concept that has stuck with me since I first heard it when I was around 16. I can’t remember who it was, so I don’t have a quote, but the concept was this:
“If you were on your deathbed and you had 10 minutes to live, would the thing that is making you anxious bother you now?”
I encourage you to try it the next time you are feeling anxious about something – it has worked well for me over the past 8 years.
So that’s what I did. I dried my hands, realised how unimportant my exam result was in the greater order of the universe, took some deep breaths and pulled myself back into the present.
Then I turned the exam paper over to read it.
I have noticed something else about anxiety. It really does make things seem worse than they are in reality. With a clear head, I realised that I could actually do well in this exam. I just had to let go of my anxiety, which was diverting my attention away from the precious time, the now, that I had to complete the exam.
Keep your attention on the red arrow.
“You may now begin the exam.”