In small amounts, experts agree that stress can be a good thing. It helps us stay focused and even improves our mental performance.
However, dealing with stress in the build-up to an exam can feel overwhelming. As the NHS details, too much exam stress – rather than helping us succeed – can have a negative impact both on academic achievement and mental health.
So, how to ensure that we best manage exam stress?
Experts highlight that an effective approach to exams is partly about adopting productive academic and study skills. More than this, though, it involves looking after your physical, psychological and social health.
Here are six tips to help you cope with the stress which often accompanies examinations:
1. Eat, sleep and exercise well
When you’re studying, it’s easy to believe you don’t have time to cook healthy meals. And going for a run or getting an early night may seem like a waste of precious revision time. But, by ignoring the basics of good physical health, you’re doing your brain and your ability to learn a disservice.
Research now shows that having a balanced diet can help the body deal with the negative physical effects of stress. On top of this, making time to exercise not only boosts your sense of wellbeing but can also improve brain function. Getting a good night’s sleep, on the other hand, is key to cementing memories and feeling alert.
So, the timeworn advice is true: for a healthy, productive mind – take care of your physical health.
2. Plan your time
One of the hardest things when it comes to exam revision is knowing where to start. It can be helpful to break things down into manageable chunks. Then, create a plan or timetable with realistic targets.
Lots of students find the Pomodoro technique helpful; this is where you set a timer and focus without distractions for 25-30 minute bursts. Ticking off goals once they’ve been met can also help foster a sense of achievement.
Whatever study system you use, it’s important to schedule regular breaks alongside periods of work. Plan activities that you’ll look forward to and ideally factor in some time for socialising.
Spending some time outdoors each day is also beneficial for your mental health and will improve your sleep.
When it comes to managing exam anxiety, some types of breathing can be more helpful than others.
To calm yourself, find a few minutes each day to practice deep-breathing exercises. Although it sounds simple, this can have a huge impact on how you feel. Being able to call on this tool can be useful when dealing with stress before or even during an exam.
4. Be aware of your thoughts
Many people with exam anxiety find it hard to stop worrying about failing or the consequences of failing. If you are finding negative thoughts popping into your head, it can help to recognise them as thoughts rather than reality. Then, switch your focus.
For example, if you start thinking, “I’m no good at this”, replace it by thinking, “I’m finding this hard, but I have found other things hard at first and have still managed to do well.”
Also, remind yourself that feelings of anxiety won’t last forever. By learning something new, you are making progress regardless of a single exam result.
Students often find practising mindfulness can help them not to get pulled along by negative thoughts. Many schools, colleges and universities now offer mindfulness training to improve their students’ well-being.
5. Keep a sense of perspective
During the build-up to an exam, it’s easy to believe that your whole future rides on doing well. But remember that your worth, abilities and potential are not defined by one exam performance.
In fact, now technology has opened up a wealth of lifelong learning opportunities, there will always be the chance to revisit a subject or change directions and learn something new.
As Winston Churchill observed, “Success is not final, failure is not fatal: it is the courage to continue that counts.”
6. Speak to someone
It’s easy to say, but we all know that asking for help can feel hard. However, confiding in someone can be one of the best ways to deal with exam stress.
Sharing worries with a trusted friend or family member can help us keep things in perspective and ensure we don’t feel isolated. Schools, colleges, universities, and training providers will all have experience in helping students in similar situations. Teachers will be able to give practical advice and point you in the direction of counselling services and study skills guides.
If you’re feeling depressed, anxious or lonely, there are also many excellent organisations which can offer support without any judgement, such as Young Minds and the Samaritans in the UK.
Don’t avoid asking for help; it’s one of the bravest and most empowering things we can do.
Good luck with your exams from all the BookAnExam team!