In the second part in this two part blog series on exam stress, Amy Malloy explores Mindset versus Mindfulness as coping methods in reducing stress.
Welcome back to this two-part series on mindfulness as a tool for exam-related stress. Last time we looked at the reality of exam stress – why does it occur and what exactly happens? This time we’ll be putting that context under the spotlight, looking at why mindfulness is such a helpful tool for exam stress in particular.
The news and media is full to the brim with articles promoting positive mindset as an antidote to stress for exams. But what does this really mean? And how does it link to mindfulness? Can a shift in mindset really help reduce exam stress?
The short answer is, yes, in part, it can. In recent years, mindset has become synonymous in education with the research founded by Dr Carol Dweck in the US. Dweck advocated that a fixed mindset means you have a fixed belief about your intelligence and ability and do not believe it can change, whereas a growth mindset means you believe your intelligence and ability can grow according to the effort you put in. This is due to the plasticity of our brains that we explored last time.
This is really powerful news for exam students, meaning that our ability to perform in an exam is changeable. We are not just ‘no good at Maths’ – instead, we perhaps ‘need to put more time into understanding the Maths concepts that the exam is testing’.
Ultimately, an exam is a ruler, a measuring stick, measuring level of ability. Let’s imagine a different kind of measuring stick for a moment, measuring, say, the height of a child in order to determine if they were tall enough to go on a roller coaster ride at a theme park. If we believed (and, more importantly, the child believed) that his/her height was fixed, then the result of that measurement would be pretty important: if they were too short then they will never be able to go on that roller coaster in their lifetime. The disappointment will be acute and the child could directly link this disappointment with their own ‘failings’ in height.
However, if that same scenario occurred but the child knew they would continue to grow in height over the course of the next year, the disappointment would be less because there would be a definite possibility of being able to reach the required height in future.
So it’s not really the measuring stick that causes the stress in this scenario – it’s actually our relationship with the measurement itself. If it seems fixed, then there is a lot more emotion attached to it than if we know the result isn’t set in stone, that we have some influence over developing or changing it over time. Applying this back to exam stress, a growth mindset can really help our students’ approach to exams, because rather than assuming they only have a fixed ability which could be found lacking by an examiner, they can be encouraged to see exam results as useful information with which to inform future learning and growth. The pressure is released somewhat.
How does mindfulness fit in?
Whilst a mindset shift is a really important and positive step towards exam stress reduction, it is still essentially a set of thoughts about ourselves. The difference between mindset (in the Dweck context) and mindfulness is that mindfulness can actually take us to a place slightly stepped aside from this kind of thought. It can allow us to observe whatever thoughts are taking place in our mind, good or bad, and find acceptance for them without panicking.
A growing body of scientific research supports that participants who studied mindfulness meditation over an eight-week programme in various different contexts experienced measurable changes in their levels of empathy, self-compassion and in how they coped with stress. Rather than simply encouraging a more positive mindset, the studies report varying degrees of actual change in the brain’s structure as a result of regular meditation: a thickening of the cerebral cortex in areas of the brain associated with how we focus attention and handle emotion, making it much easier to do.
Mindfulness allows us to focus on what is real all around us (our breath, our body, sounds etc), rather than what is not real (assumptions about exams and expectations about our performance). Referring back to our last article, it takes us away from the fear of a physical threat in our mind and encourages us to focus on the reality of the situation: often when doing so we might find that the exam isn’t quite as stressful as our mind is making it out to be through fear.
Mindset versus mindfulness
As we’ve seen, a mindset shift is a really valuable approach. However, in the way described above it is a very voluntary process to try and shift the way we think, using the same network in the brain which is involved in creating those thinking patterns in the first place. The benefits of mindfulness, on the other hand, can be accessed in a more involuntary way. Whilst the practice of meditation and breathing is very conscious, mindfulness actually refers to the awareness that arises from paying attention to the present moment, rather than the meditation practice itself. As long as we practice regularly and consistently the real long-term benefit – the emerging of this awareness, the calmer nerves, the inner resilience – happen behind the scenes, through actual changes in the brain’s matter. This means that with regular practice and trusting the process, before long we may not need to actively shift our mindset because our mind is already beginning to function in a healthier way all by itself.
Next week, we’ll explore the more practical side of mindfulness for exams and how to prepare your students. Please also join us for our webinar on Mindfulness for exam-related stress at 8am and 4pm (British Summer Time) on Wednesday 8th May 2019, where we’ll cover all of this and more in detail.
About the author
Amy Malloy is the founder of No More Shoulds.com, teaching mindfulness for healthier, kinder minds. With 15 years’ experience in teaching and educational publishing, she now combines first-hand understanding with wellbeing practices to help educators and students find inner calm in a stressful world.