Talking about Thriving in Mental Health
June 5, 2017

Six steps to managing exam stress

We all encounter stress on a daily basis. Exams, coursework and schoolwork can all leave us feeling stressed, and sometimes a little overwhelmed. Worry, nerves, pressure, exam anxiety - there are lots of different terms out there, and lots of variations on exam stress. It can affect everyone whatever their age, background or situation. I hope we can help a little, and make the exam period feel less daunting.

I’ve put together some easy-to-follow tips for managing exam stress. These tips are perfect for students, parents, tutors, or anyone who needs a bit of advice on managing exam stress, or helping others to.

1. Make a plan

This one may sound obvious, but it is so important! Often it can feel like you have a ridiculous amount of revision to accomplish, a mountain of past papers to get through, and many different subjects to juggle. Making a plan with manageable steps can help you to achieve small goals, and to eventually tackle the bigger picture. Don’t expect to know everything all at once.

For some people, this might involve making a detailed revision plan, organising every hour of their day, and sticking to it like glue. For others, it might mean simply breaking a subject into manageable chunks and dealing with one topic at a time. It can be really helpful to tick/ cross off content when you have understood it - you will feel like you have accomplished something, and will be surprised at how much you have covered.

Make your own personalised plan, or use on online tool to help you to create one such as Get Revising's Online Planner. Remember to include planned breaks.

If you want advice about revision techniques tailored for you, give Leading Lights a call.

2. Enjoy the great outdoors

“I don’t have time to go out - I need to revise.” Sound familiar? When you are revising, it can be tempting to stay inside, shut yourself away, and cram. However, by getting outside into the great outdoors and being in nature, not only will you be getting your vitamin D for the day, but studies have shown it can help to alleviate stress and anxiety.

In Japan Shinrin-yoku (forest bathing), which encompasses walking, listening and relaxing amongst trees, is a common form of meditation. So, go sit in a park or a garden, play a sport, go for a walk in the countryside, or even go shopping! Take a few minutes to listen to the sounds, sights and smells surrounding you - be it the smell of grass in the park, or the hum of the streets and neighbours talking.

Many people find exercise can help them to feel less stressed, and even to get a better night sleep. If you can’t bear to leave the revision behind, try working outside (or at least sit close to a window, so you can still see the world go by!)

3. Make the most of friends and family

Ask your friends and family to help you with your revision. It can really help to talk through complex ideas with others - try teaching or explaining a concept to someone, and you might be surprised by how much you really know. Many people find it helpful to have a study partner, or to occasionally meet up with friends to revise together.

If you struggle to work productively with others, make sure to keep seeing your family and friends regularly. This can help you to remember that exams aren’t everything see tip 6.

In India, people are creating laughter clubs to relieve stress. So, grab a friend or family member, stare intensely into their eyes, and it will be so embarrassing that you will start laughing (I promise, you feel so silly doing this, that it does actually work!). The longer you can keep laughing, the greater the potential effects on mood and stress.

4. Be mindful

We’ve all seen the word mindfulness thrown around a lot, but what does it actually mean? Mindfulness really just means focusing on what is happening in the moment (and not what is going to happen, or might happen, in the future). As Professor Mark Williams, the former director of the Oxford Mindfulness Centre explains “An important part of mindfulness is reconnecting with our bodies and the sensations they experience. This means waking up to the sights, sounds, smells and tastes of the present moment. That might be something as simple as the feel of a banister as we walk upstairs.”

Mindful activities might include doing yoga, reading a book, having a relaxing bath, or stroking a pet. Focus on the weight of the book in your hand, or the feeling of fur beneath your fingers. Mindful activities could also include doing something fun with friends or family. It really just encompasses appreciating the present, and trying not to worry about the future.

Creating a mindful routine can be helpful: go for a walk at a specific time each day, or see a friend for a coffee at the same time each week. An awareness of mindfulness can also help us identify when we are feeling stressed, or anxious, and therefore take action.

Mindful stretching is easy, and can help you to relax. MoodJuice has a 30-minute audio guide to help.

Headspace offers a 10-day free trial which guides you through meditation and mindfulness techniques. 

5. The exam itself

We’ve all been there: you’re in the exam hall, you feel sick, you turn over the exam paper and your mind goes blank. However, there are a number of simple breathing exercises you can try to keep yourself calm and relaxed during the exam itself. These will also be useful throughout the revision process - so have a try!

A useful technique is belly breathing. Try taking deep, regular and slow breaths in, so that you can feel them in your belly. You can also try breathing in and counting to five, breathing out when you get to six, and repeating. NHS Choices has a good guide to breathing exercises for stress.

Furthermore, in the period leading up to the exam try listening to relaxing music to distract yourself, and avoid talking too much about the exam with friends and family. Make sure you have a hearty breakfast with long release carbohydrates such as porridge, and drink plenty of water. Additionally, bananas are a fantastic source of potassium, which is thought to alleviate stress and anxiety.

Try to get a good night sleep before the exam - remember to avoid using electronics which emit blue light (such as mobile phones) for at least an hour before you go to bed. Whilst it can be tempting to reach for the coffee when things get stressful, caffeine actually increases anxiety levels and can also prevent you from sleeping well. If you find that you don’t do any of these things, that’s ok too, don’t make yourself guilty because you are not being Captain Sensible.

6. You are not your exam results

Good luck to everyone with their upcoming exams and remember that your exam results are not a reflection of who you are, how much talent you have, or how intelligent you are. What is important is that you enjoy what you have learnt, and this is your chance to show that off, and be proud of yourself for all your hard work.

Something to remember in moments of vague despair: plenty of incredibly clever and amazing people failed all their exams in spectacular fashion. You are not, I repeat, not your exam results, and there are always chances to go back and revisit them if you want to. There are no shut doors. Even if it feels like your whole life has been distilled into these exams, you will not feel like this forever. Your future is so much more than this. It is who you become as a person, what you do for others, and what you share with the world.

Please give us a call if there is anything we can do to help.

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