Coping with exam stress
Posted on: February 10, 2020
Exam season is, for many students, the most stressful time of the academic year. Increasing numbers of students are seeking help for study related mental health issues. Despite what many people believe, being a student isn’t all about drinking and partying. It is a time of high workloads and a lot of pressure coming from your course deadlines and the pressure you inevitably put on yourself. And when exam season comes around it can be hard to stop that stress from becoming all-encompassing. Here are some things you can do to help ease the strain of exam season.
It may sound odd to some but breathing right can have a big impact on your mental health. When we’re stressed we have a tendency to breath shallow breaths which increase our stress and anxiety. We should all, and as babies we naturally do, breathe from our diaphragm but many of us have a habit of taking shallow breaths and it’s a habit we need to break. You can read a fantastic article on breathing on the Headspace site.
One thing that can really help you to find calm is to spend time, and it only need be a minute or two, doing some focussed, deep breathing. While it is always good to spend time quietly to help you focus and relax, breathing exercises can be done anywhere, even in an exam hall! Take a look at this article for some simple exercises.
Self-care – eating, sleeping and exercising
Exam season can be impossibly busy. Tutorials, study groups, revision sessions, late nights trying to go through your notes just one more time; all these things can feel as though we have no time to spare for anything else. But finding time to care for yourself is essential for keeping good mental health and keeping unhealthy stress at bay. And once you take the time to prioritise you, you will likely find that you have more time than you thought. After all, with a relaxed, refreshed, well-cared for state of mind you are less likely to lose time in distracted worrying and will achieve more in the time spent studying.
There are three primary areas of self-care to think about. First don’t spend all your spare cash on pizza and fast food. Eating healthily will boost your ability to focus, learn and to keep a calm, clear head. It may feel a drag to spend time cooking when you have a desk full of notes to read but healthy eating doesn’t mean taking three hours over a fine-dining quality meal. Just make sure you’re getting lots of fruit and veg, oily fish, fibre and proteins in your diet. You’d be surprised how quickly you can throw together a healthy meal. For example, a nice, big stir fry full of veg can be done in less than ten minutes. Faster than getting a pizza delivered!
Next, a good night’s sleep is key. Of course, when you’re stressed it can be difficult to get off to sleep and during exam season it can be hard to push yourself to bed instead of doing just one more hour of study. But a lack of sleep actually boosts your stress hormones, so finding a way to rest is essential. Push yourself to go to bed at a sensible time; get those eight hours of rest; don’t go straight from studying to bed, instead give yourself time to relax with some TV or a good book. And while you’re studying don’t be afraid to take a quick power nap. Twenty minutes of sleep can do wonders for your concentration.
Exercise is a great stress reliever too. And I’m not talking about spending hours and hours in the gym. A quick walk or run, an exercise class, or a visit to your local swimming pool can help you relax by releasing good hormones and reducing bad ones in your body. Spend a little time exercising every day and you’ll be more relaxed and able to concentrate better when you sit down to study.
When should you start getting ready for your exams? The week before they begin? The month before? The answer is that a wise student begins at the start of the semester. Think of it like this: you may know that you won’t be examined on every topic you cover on your course, but every topic informs your knowledge. Everything you study builds on the wider topic and that deeper knowledge can inform your answers in the exam. Even if the introductory lecture in week one seems irrelevant, the notes you take then are the foundations of everything that comes later.
So, from day one take good notes, do the reading you’re assigned, go through your notes after class to make sure you understand them. Colour code your notes by theme or topic to help you when you come back to them for revision. Start preparing in advance and you’ll be ready when its time to start revising.
In the weeks leading up to the exam think about whether there are any areas of the course that you’ve particularly struggled with and set up a meeting with your tutor to talk through your questions.
If you are fully prepared for when your exams come around you can reassure yourself when stressful times come calling. And be prepared on the day too. It’s not just about doing lots of revision and extra study. Make sure you have spare pens. If you can take notes in with you, make sure that they are clear and it is easy to find the quote or the date you need within them. The knowledge that you have properly prepared for the exam will be a big help to you when you walk into the exam hall.
Set realistic goals
Setting yourself goals is really helpful in keeping stress levels under control. Not only will being organised create a feeling of calm and preparedness, you will feel a real sense of achievement when you make one of your goals.
But be careful: make sure the goals you set yourself are realistic. Don’t decide you’re going to study more than you can realistically achieve in one day. Ask yourself what you can genuinely achieve in the time you have and don’t do more than that. Realistic goals allow you to find a sense of achievement; unrealistic goals will only make you feel more stressed.
Be flexible, don’t worry if you slip off schedule
Life will inevitably get in the way. You can have drawn up the best, most detailed revision timetable and be completely determined to stick to it but there will be days when life forces you to veer off into a different direction. A friend may need someone to talk to, your may get stuck in traffic on the way back from campus, you may be offered an extra shift at work on double pay; sometimes things just don’t turn out as planned. And that is fine. Don’t allow yourself to be ruled by your revision plans. Slipping behind your schedule is fine, just allow yourself to be flexible.
Make time to relax
And speaking of timetables: make sure you give yourself time to relax. Whether that is spending it with friends, or simply relaxing on your own with a favourite box set, time to relax is really important for your mental health. It may feel like an indulgence to head off to a bar or the cinema for a few hours but it really is vital to give yourself time to have fun.
Believe it or not, time spent relaxing will actually help boost brain power and productivity. In the run up to exams, stress can make you feel guilty for doing things that aren’t directly related to studying. When you hear that voice in your head, do your best to ignore it or talk back to it. Tell it that it’s talking rubbish and that you are doing what is best for you. Right now, you need to have fun, you’ll get back to your revision later.
Another way to pick yourself up when stress is pulling you down is to treat yourself. Whether that is a sweet for every half an hour of studying done or a night off when you’re done nothing but wade through your notes all day, give yourself a treat every now and then.
Think about it like this: if your friend was going through a stressful time what would you do, other than be there when they need someone to talk to? You may buy them a little gift, surprise them with an evening doing something fun, or simply make sure that no one disturbs them while they spend a relaxing evening in the bath with a glass of wine and their favourite novel. You’re going through a stressful time so why not do the same for yourself?
Not the end of the world
When you walk out of that exam room, you may feel like the exam has gone horribly wrong. Despite all your studying you had a complete mind blank and could barely scratch together an answer. Or you know you wrote a lot, but you have a feeling that it is utterly incoherent. What do you do now? First, talk to your course mates. Do they feel the same? Talking the exam through can help you realise that everyone struggled, that everyone found a particular question difficult. Knowing you weren’t the only one can really help and simply talking about the exam can help you feel calmer.
Remember, however badly you feel you may have done, you won’t know for sure until the results come through. Spending that time speculating on what you may or may not have achieved, worrying about what happens next if things have gone badly, isn’t going to change the outcome at all and will only make you feel more stressed and more worries. Write down everything that is on your mind and put it to one side. You’ll be surprised how much writing your worries down can help take the stress away.
If your results aren’t what they hoped for, talk to your tutor. There will almost certainly be a chance for you to retake the exam(s) or you may be able to make up credits with other courses.
Talk to someone
Sometimes, however hard we try, however well we take care of ourselves we cannot defeat stress. It takes over and we need some help to find our way through it. It’s nothing to be embarrassed about, nothing to be ashamed of. Sometimes, whether its exam season or just a difficult time in life, we need someone to help us find our way through it.
Your university will offer support for you through their student wellbeing services. Your GP can support you and point you in the direction of local services too. Never be afraid to ask for help.