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Exam stress

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Exams. We all have to do them. Working towards exams can make us feel a lot of pressure. We might not have that much choice over whether or not we actually do exams, but there are definitely things we can do to help deal with the stress we're feeling.

Exam stress is:

  • Excessive worry about upcoming exams
  • Fear of being evaluated
  • Apprehension about the consequences
  • Experienced by many students
  • Not mysterious or difficult to understand
  • Manageable by following a plan of helpful suggestions

Causes of exam anxiety

1. Lifestyle issues:

  • Inadequate rest
  • Poor nutrition
  • Insufficient exercise
  • Not scheduling available time
  • Not prioritising commitments
  • Too many stimulants

2. Information needs:

  • Strategies for exam-taking
  • Academic information such as course requirements, teachers' expectations, exam dates and exam location
  • Knowledge of how to apply anxiety reduction techniques while studying before any exam

3. Less helpful studying styles:

  • Inefficient: inconsistent content coverage; trying to memorize the textbook; binge studying; all-night studying before exams
  • Ineffective: reading without understanding; cannot recall the material; not making revision notes; not revising

4. Psychological factors:

  • Feeling little or no control over the exam situation (rather than knowing and applying exam strategies)
  • Negative thinking and self-criticism (rather than being one's own best friend)
  • Comparing self with others
  • Irrational thinking about exams and outcomes; irrational beliefs "If I don't pass, my (family/boyfriend/girlfriend/friends) will lose respect for me"; "I will never get a Degree."
  • Irrational demands "I have to get at least a 2.1 or I am worthless."
  • Catastrophic predictions "I'll fail no matter what I do—there’s no point."


Perspective

Lots of people will tell you this, because it's true - exams aren't everything. Whatever happens in your exams, you can still be successful in life afterwards. So if you don't do as well as you'd hoped, try to keep things in perspective.

Employers don't just look at your exam scores. They're just as interested in your attitude, your transferable skills and how well you'll get on with other people. Exam success doesn't define you as a person. There's so much more to you and your personality than how well you can tackle a highly specific exercise that is in any case almost never a perfect gauge of your ability in that subject.

Think about how far you've come already. You've already done incredibly well, and stopping or failing exams at this point isn't 'throwing away' your past success.

Once you've done an exam, try to forget about it. There's nothing you can do about it, and worrying won't change your mark.

Support

Don't be put off by peers saying they're doing huge amounts of revision. As already mentioned, that's probably not actually working out for them. One of the key reasons we feel exam stress is from comparing ourselves to others. It's important not to forget that your exam results are just a small part of who you are.

If you can, discuss with your parent or carer what they're expecting you to achieve. Adults with steep or unrealistic expectations will just add unnecessary pressure. It's helpful to let them know what you think you have the capacity to achieve, and to insist that the best way to get there is to have support from them, not pressure.

If you're feeling really worried or anxious, chat to a good friend, family member, or tutor. It helps to get it out of your system, and they may well be able to help think about practical strategies to deal with exam stress.

General exam stress-busting tips

Believe in yourself. If you prepare for the exams properly you should do fine, meaning that there is no need to worry excessively.

Don't try to be perfect. It's great to succeed and reach for the stars, but keep things in balance. If you think that "anything less than an A or A* means I've failed" then you are creating mountains of unnecessary stress for yourself. Aim to do your best but do recognise that none of us can be perfect all of the time.

Take steps to overcome problems. If you find you don't understand some of your course material, getting stressed out won't help. Instead, take action to address the problem directly by seeing or talking to your tutor or getting help from your classmates.

Don't keep things bottled up. Confiding in supportive people you trust is a great way to alleviate stress and worry. Discuss with staff, parents and other trusted people.

Keep things in perspective. The exams might seem like the most crucial thing right now but, in the grander scheme of your whole life, they are only a small part.

Interrupt negative thoughts with positive ones. Examples: “I can do this”, “I will do my best”, “I can pass this test”, “I will focus only on the question in front of me.” "I have done it before, so I can do it again." Actively challenge your irrational thoughts. Life will be worth living regardless of this exam. Respect yourself for taking this course and getting this far, regardless of the outcome.

Plan your study time. Too much material + Too little time = Anxiety. Plan your studying with regularly scheduled study sessions separated by 5 – 10 minute breaks. Follow these tips:

  • Picture your exams as a time-bound project. Present this as a challenge to yourself. Best of all, there's a definite end point.
  • Work out the basics: which exams you have, how the marks are allocated, and how much you have to learn for each one. Don't expect to learn everything; but having in mind where you'll get the marks can help you prioritise.
  • Break your revision down into small chunks, and form a plan. Once you've got a plan, you won't have any more dilemmas at the start of the day about what to work on.
  • Equally, don't panic if you go slightly off schedule - revise tomorrow's schedule
  • Schedule in plenty of free time to unwind, and protect this time. Nobody can work all day every day. Give yourself plenty of rest and you can do the same amount of work in half the time or less. 

Try to maintain a healthy lifestyle. Anxiety increases when one feels tired, run down and overwhelmed. Overall resilience depends on one's physical and mental health, which can be strengthened by:

  • Enough movement and exercise (vs. couch potato lifestyle)
  • Balanced life (vs. over-stress)
  • Positive thoughts/beliefs (vs. self-defeating thoughts/cynicism)
  • Health focus (vs. self-neglect)
  • Replenishing nutrition (vs. junk food)
  • Regular and adequate sleep (vs. late night lifestyle)

Get accurate information. Check your School Handbook and get an understanding of the grading procedure. If you don’t understand, ask. Before the exam, make sure you know where it will be held, the start time, how long it will last, whether extra time will be allowed. Ask your teachers any questions like when the marks will be available, what materials can or should be brought into the exam room.

Get yourself into exam mode. Practise on sample tests in the textbook or study guide. Look at past exams. Ask for suggestions from your teacher what to expect in the exam, what course materials should be emphasised, how to prioritise study time for the course.

Be prepared for the day. Rest well the night before the exam. Plan to arrive at the exam location early. If you can pick your seat, choose one away from the doors, windows or other distractions. Plan to monitor the time during the exam so wear a watch or sit where you can see the clock. Plan to wear layers of clothing so you can adjust your need for more warmth or coolness. Check out the examination room ahead of time if you can.

Good Habits. These habits will help you concentrate as well as reducing stress:

  • Take frequent breaks. Psychologists say we can only concentrate properly for 30-45 minutes. Take regular breaks. When you're on your break, do something completely different - move away from your desk, walk about, or make some tea!
  • Eat well. Keep blood sugars level to avoid highs and lows of energy, by eating slow-release foods like bread, rice, pasta, fruit and veg.
  • Drink lots of water. People often underestimate how much hydration helps!
  • Think about when and where you work best. Some of us aren't morning people, and not everybody finds themselves productive in the library. There's no one best place or time to work - it's about what works for you!
  • Keep active. Even a short walk will do. Exercising is one of the quickest and most effective ways to de-stress. Fresh air will clear your head and perk you up.
  • Sleep! Try to get about 8 hours' sleep a night. If you're stressed about not being able to sleep, there are lots of ways you can overcome sleep problems.
  • Find activities that help you relax. Maybe it's a hot bath, watching a TV show, or a creative activity. Schedule this down-time into your timetable.
  • Avoid anxious or talkative students. Avoid other people or things that may disturb your self-confidence, focus and level of relaxation. Definitely avoid arriving late.
  • Don't set yourself ridiculous goals. Nobody can revise 10 topics in a day! Avoid setting the day up to be a disappointment.
  • Don't cut out all the enjoyment from your life. It's tempting to decide you'll just knuckle down to work and "focus", but this is counterproductive - it's impossible to focus without giving your brain rest by doing other activities.
  • Avoid stimulants. Caffeine, alcohol and drugs impede your energy and concentration in the long term. It'll also make it more difficult to get that much-needed sleep.

Some anxiety reduction techniques

Deep breathing:

  • Take a deep breath
  • Hold it for three seconds
  • Exhale audibly all at once and let your head, jaw and shoulders drop
  • Breathe easy ‘into’ your neck, jaw and shoulders and breathe again into the relaxed state
  • Repeat cycle once or twice
  • Remember, if you try this in an exam, you will likely want to exhale more quietly so that you don’t disturb the other students

Total tension release (can be done lying down or sitting):

  • Tense your whole body one part at a time
  • Lift your toes and tense both calves
  • Tense your thighs and buttocks
  • Tighten your abdomen
  • Tense your chest and back
  • Tighten your arms and clench your fists
  • Tense your neck and clench your jaw
  • Tightly close your eyes
  • Take a deep breath and hold it for five seconds
  • Let your breath and the tension in your body go all at once
  • Feel the tension leave your body

Relaxation sanctuary (useful in the exam):

  • Focus on the inner screen of your mind’s eye
  • Imagine your ideal, safe, relaxing place
  • Close your eyes
  • In your mind, send yourself there for 15 to 30 seconds
  • Breathe easily and enjoy the relaxation
  • Go there whenever you need a quick relaxing break (make sure you don’t fall asleep if you are in the middle of your exam, though!)
    Smile!
  • Really feel that smile spread throughout your body
  • Take a deep breath and exhale through your mouth

Tips for the revision period

Leave plenty of time to revise so that you don't have to do last minute cramming. Giving yourself adequate time will help to boost your confidence and reduce any pre-exam stress as you know you have prepared well.

Develop a timetable so that you can track and monitor your progress. Make sure you allow time for fun and relaxation so that you avoid burning out, but avoid drugs and alcohol.

Take a short break as soon as you notice your mind is losing concentration. Make yourself a sandwich. You will then come back to your revision refreshed. Be careful that planned rewards during your break of five minutes of TV or checking your email or social media don’t turn into an hour before you know it.

Experiment with alternative revision techniques so that revision is more fun and your motivation to study is high. Try mind-mapping, use multi-coloured index cards, get yourself an assortment of highlighter pens.

Don't drink too much coffee, tea or fizzy drinks; the caffeine will 'hype' you and make your thinking less clear. Eat healthily and regularly; your brain will benefit from the nutrients. Don’t give in to a Saturday evening of binge drinking, either!

Regular moderate exercise will boost your energy, clear your mind and reduce feelings of stress. Try out some yoga, pilates, tai chi or relaxation techniques. They will help to keep you feeling calm and balanced, improve your concentration levels and help you to sleep better.

Tips for the exam itself

Avoid panic. It's natural to feel some exam nerves prior to starting the exam, but getting excessively nervous is counterproductive as you will not be able to think as clearly. The quickest and most effective way to eliminate feelings of stress and panic is to close your eyes and take several long, slow deep breaths. Breathing in this way calms your whole nervous system. Simultaneously you could give yourself some mental pep-talk by mentally repeating "I am calm and relaxed" or "I know I will do fine".

If your mind goes blank, don't panic! It will just make it harder to recall information. Instead, focus on slow, deep breathing for about one minute. If you still can't remember the information, then move on to another question and return to this question later. Have a drink of water. If you are really stuck, you might consider getting up and taking a short walk outside the room to compose yourself or going to the toilet. Ask the invigilator for assistance. When you are able, get back to work - remember that it is better to put something down rather than nothing.

Remember that the invigilator is there to assist you (for instance, if you have a problem with distracting noises inside or outside of the examination room, if the sun is shining on your exam paper, if you need a drink of water, etc.).

Survey what’s in front of you: read the instructions carefully, quickly survey every page of the exam paper and see what will be expected of you

Re-read the instructions a second time (are you really being asked to answer either one or three of the questions?)

Prioritise what needs to be done: place a mark beside all questions you know you can answer, divide up your time according to the importance of the questions, Answer the easiest questions first to guarantee marks in the least amount of time.

Pace yourself: do not rush through the exam, regularly check time left for the rest of the questions, and give yourself time to proofread; you should not still be writing at the invigilator’s “5 minutes remaining” announcement.

After the exam

The day before the exam, you might want to decide what you are going to do immediately after the exam ends. Standing around and joining in with others' delight or dismay is almost always discouraging. If you have something already planned you can simply leave others to do the post-mortem, while you go and do something more enjoyable. Whatever you do, don't spend endless time criticising yourself for where you think you went wrong. Often our own self-assessment is far too harsh. Congratulate yourself for the things you did right, learn from the bits where you know you could have done better, and then move on.

Plan to reward yourself for your hard work. After the exam, do something you enjoy that makes you feel special: take a relaxing walk, have coffee with a friend, buy yourself a present, exercise, have dinner at a favourite restaurant, take a luxurious bath with candles, soft music and a good book (not a textbook). If you are going to meet up with someone, you could agree with them that you will only talk about the exam for 5 minutes - or even not at all. It’s important that you let the stress of the exam go if you have more exams to sit over the next few days or weeks.

For more advice

The NHS website has information on helping your child beat exam stress

Family Lives article on helping your child with exam stress

14 ways to beat exam stress, from Mind

Dealing with exam stress, from Student Minds

7 helpful tips for combatting exam stress in teens, from a psychologist

How to beat exam stress, from Childline

Charlie Waller Trust guide to looking after yourself during exams

Young Minds guide: exam stress