"From a Place of Joy, Not Fear": The Way We See Our Exams and Deadlines

Emily Caulton explores what motivates us to study and pick our topics- is it genuine passion, or just fear? If you’re constantly motivated by fear, it doesn’t matter how hard you work, or how great a mark you get at the end of it. If you haven’t worked by being motivated by joy or interest or some other part of you that isn’t wracked by anxiety, it isn’t rewarding to achieve anything.

I’ve always had a special relationship when it comes to work, and I’m certainly not unique because of this. How I wish I was. Sleepless nights (and subsequently, sleeping pills), eating almost nothing, wearing the same outfit for two weeks running during the revision period, and staying in the library from 8am to 8pm: these dysfunctional habits swallow me up during this time of the semester every year, and turn me into a half-person for a month. What’s more, in some way or another,  every student I know is sucked under into a stressful void too. It’s not healthy, and yet we all take it as very normal indeed.

Perhaps I feel it to a greater degree than a lot of people: I have clinical anxiety and depression, which is only truly dispelled when I’m taking medication, so during the times that I am med-free, managing it is always a challenge around the end of the semester. I’ve come to learn that as long as I’m taking exams or working towards a mammoth deadline, I will be eating less and sleeping less until they are finished, and that I won’t be wearing make-up or even clothes that I like until the deadline/exam diet is over. Those who know me very well can attest that I’m not a pretty sight or a particularly fun person to be around during this time of the year. The shocking thing is that I am not alone in reacting this way towards exams and deadlines, despite the fact that my behaviour is so irrational and unhealthy. 

Certainly, I’ve only met a handful of people who organise themselves in such an obsessive, self-punishing way because of something as unimportant as academic work. The way I handle it is ridiculously extreme, and difficult not to judge; I know this because I judge myself for it a lot. However, to different degrees, and sometimes even worse extremes than mine, everybody I know harbours dysfunctions and unhealthy habits during the exam and final-deadline period. We, as students, take suffering as a very normal part of the academic year. I’ve found that it isn’t really a case about “getting some perspective” or rationalising the fear of impending exams or deadlines – as intelligent people, we’re all aware that exams and deadlines aren’t serious problems, and that in the real world people have devastating issues to tackle. Knowing this, however humbling it is, doesn’t change the fact that your body doesn’t want to eat, or that you have nervous breakdowns, or that you can’t bring yourself to be yourself.

A friend of mine told me something that changed my perspective completely about how I see university. When she had been worried about getting a good mark in an essay, a friend of hers had told her that she should start working “from a place of joy, and not fear.” What I love most about this advice is that it captures what university was actually invented for: for learning, and enjoying it. It quashes the idea that university is there to punish you, and break you, and make you hate what you were so desperate to study before you arrived. So why is it that we allow our mental and physical health to be severely compromised because of our work, particularly at the end of the semester?

I think, often, the true cause of our fear surrounding exams and final essays is the stigma around them. For too long we have been subjected to the words ‘exams’, ‘essays’ and ‘dissertations,’ and their association with unprecedented importance, which triggers terror and stress. Suddenly, it seems like life-or-death if an exam doesn’t go perfectly, or a comma is left out of an essay. So much importance is placed upon exams and deadlines, that immediately all our self-worth as students is invested in these things. Making a mistake seems like a disaster. All at once, we expect ourselves to be inhuman and force ourselves to be perfect. Consequently, the idea that exams and deadlines are so important motivates us to work out of terror, rather than because we want to: ‘from a place of fear, not joy.’

When I handed in my dissertation about four days ago, I was told I’d feel relief. I didn’t feel that at all, even though I’d worked harder for this than I had for anything else. I had been going to the library every single day, seven days a week, from the moment I stepped into St Andrews in September. But it hadn’t been because I had wanted to; it had been because I felt I had to. Fear made me work that hard. After I handed it in, all I could think about was why everything had transpired this way. I questioned why I had chosen to write my dissertation out of terror, rather than joy and excitement. I realised then that if you’re constantly motivated by fear, it doesn’t matter how hard you work, or how great a mark you get at the end of it. If you haven’t worked by being motivated by joy or interest or some other part of you that isn’t wracked by anxiety, it isn’t rewarding to achieve anything. 

Actively deciding to change the way you work, rather than the way you feel, can be extraordinary for not only your productivity and possibly even your grades, but also (and undoubtedly most importantly) your mental health: start working from a place of joy, not fear. I’ve already mentioned that we can’t necessarily rationalise fear, and that wishing away anxiety is about as effective as wishing away a broken leg at times. Resolving to “not be scared” or that “it’s just work” is useless because nobody really believes themselves when they say it. But actively changing the way you work is perhaps a different affair.

Deciding to work because of a love and passion for your degree, as opposed to looking at it as a terrible punishment, is a real choice, and one that I’ve made. It’s choosing to do things your own unique way, and choosing (however hard this may be) to not over-work yourself so that you’re bored and resentful of your subject. It’s also deciding to remain curious and open-minded about the way you revise or write, and letting go of the fact that nothing you ever write will be perfect. It’s deciding to acknowledge the fact that you initially loved your course, and were once desperate to do it, and attempting to revive some of that excitement. It’s about trying to see deadlines and exams as an opportunity to cultivate some new knowledge or interest, rather than a terrible, frightening chore to do. 

Of course, I’m not expecting every day to be a whirlwind of inspiration, because that’s just not realistic, and there will be plenty of occasions when I’m anxious or reluctant to work. But I know that I work best when I decide to throw myself into what I’m writing, rather than tip-toeing around it. The best moments of my dissertation were the rare ones when I was genuinely excited about what I was writing, and not terrified. I realise that this isn’t going to be an easy mind-set to put into practice, nor is it going to be something that I can stick to all the time – there are parts of everyone’s course that are uninspiring, or even disheartening. But ultimately, although your feelings can’t often be changed, your actions can, and working with a desire to love your work, rather than fear it, is the first step to enjoying the degree you signed up for. And isn’t that the point?