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Dealing with exam stress

If you want some tips on how to cope with a stressful exam period, read on

There’s a lot of pressure on people to succeed in exams and sometimes this can begin to feel a little overwhelming.
Unfortunately we don’t have a magic wand that can make exams go away… but we do have some tips that will help you stay well, focused and prepared for your exams.

What’s the difference between feeling under pressure and feeling stressed?

You can begin to experience stress after feeling really under pressure, both mentally or emotionally. It’s natural to feel under pressure during exam season, but if you can learn to manage it, you can understand how to keep stress under control.
Some people may thrive under pressure; sometimes it can motivate you or help you perform at your best. But for others, a lot of pressure can make them feel like they’re unable to manage. A lot of pressure usually develops into a feeling of stress, and then it can feel like you can no longer cope day to day.

Changing the way you think changes the chemicals in your body

When you feel under pressure, your body releases hormones that induce a stress response.
Adrenaline pumps around your body to prepare you for the task ahead, whether this is running away from something, walking into an exam hall or getting ready for a date. Your body does this to help you cope with the pressure or ‘threat’. As soon as you’ve dealt with this, your body naturally re-balances and you feel calm again.
Once in a while, this kind of hormonal reaction is okay. But if you’re constantly firing off these stress responses over a long period of time, your body will become flooded with hormones and this will lead to you feeling very stressed. By changing your perceptions about an exam or your abilities to perform in an exam, you’ll be able to manage your body’s natural response and help it perceive your upcoming exams as less of a ‘threat’.

How to spot if you’re stressed

You could be showing signs of stress if you’re:
  • Feeling more tired than usual
  • Struggling to focus and feeling overwhelmed
  • Feeling anxious or feeling as though your self-esteem is lower
  • Feeling teary and more emotional than usual
  • Struggling to sleep or stay asleep throughout the night
  • Waking up from sleep and feeling exhausted
  • Suffering from regular stomach upsets
  • Loss of appetite
  • Feeling run down
  • Beginning to experience panic attacks.
Experiencing one or more of these things doesn’t necessarily mean you’re ‘stressed’ – we all have very different levels of tolerance to difficult situations – but if you notice your body or mind starting to feel different to usual, this could be a good indicator.

How to keep yourself well

There are three vital things your body needs to keep well: healthy food, plenty of water and good-quality sleep.

Water

The NHS states the recommended daily amount of water is 1.6 litres for women and two litres for men. Obviously, everyone’s different, so you may find you want to drink more than this. If you’re quite physically active or live in a warmer climate, you’ll probably need to up your intake, for example.
Making sure you stay hydrated is important – upping your fluid intake improves brain function and also helps distribute nutrients around your body whilst removing anything you don’t need. Who’d have thought water could do so much!

Food

It’s important to nourish your body with lots of healthy grub. Make sure you fuel your body and mind with lots of vegetables, fruits and nuts, and keep to a balanced diet of three meals a day – an empty, rumbling stomach will make it incredibly hard to concentrate!
Try and eat as naturally as possible and stay away from refined sugars found in sweets, fizzy drinks and chocolate. They might tempt you in by giving you a boost initially, but very quickly you’ll fall into a sleepy, demotivated slump.

Sleep

Sleep is so important; it’s your body’s healing time, when the cells repair and your brain detoxes the millions of thoughts racing through your mind during the day.
If you find you’ve started dreaming a lot, it’s probably because there’s been a lot playing on your mind during the day. If you can identify what these things are, write them down before going to bed. By acknowledging what they are, it’ll allow you to sleep a lot more soundly.
Try to keep to the same sleep pattern that you maintained prior to exams too. To help you get into that sleepy zone, give yourself 30 minutes to wind down without the TV on or your phone in your hand. Pick up a book instead, and switch the light off as soon as those eyelids start to droop.
Manage your pressure or stress triggers
By understanding what triggers you to feel stressed, you can begin to identify some coping strategies to help you deal with these as soon as possible. If you can take control of the situation, you’ll feel much more empowered, which will in-turn improve your well-being and resilience.
To help you identify your triggers, think about the last time you felt really under pressure or overwhelmed, then write down…
What you were doing
Where you were
Who you were with or if you were alone
How you felt emotionally
How you felt physically (i.e heart started to race)
What happened next – what was the result? What did you do? How did you feel for the rest of the day?
What made you feel better.
Once you’ve identified these, you’ll be much more aware of stressful feelings you can potentially avoid or at least diffuse in the future.
Keeping yourself focused
When you wake each morning, try to refrain from rushing straight to your textbooks or revision notes. Instead, try to ease yourself into the day by having a relaxed morning, or even try a couple of minutes meditation. Sit somewhere quiet, place your hand on your heart and begin to breathe deeply. Focusing on your breath and heart is a powerful tool, and doing this regularly will help you begin your day with energy, mental clarity and balanced emotions.
When you do get around to starting your revision for the day, set yourself a study goal to work towards in that session. Jot down something that can be broken into smaller, more manageable tasks, and you’ll be much more likely to stay relaxed and focused on what you need to complete.
Stick to what makes you happy
A routine is so important, and daily activities or hobbies shouldn’t be ignored just because it’s revision or exam season!
If you’re a gym bunny, love to run regularly or enjoy playing a sport – keep it up. Exercise releases happy hormones and will do a lot to keep you feeling grounded. Although it won’t make you completely stress-free, getting sweaty will help detox the emotional intensity you may be feeling, and it’ll give your brain a reboot with a much-needed break too.
Likewise – if have a creative hobby like painting, sewing or drawing, keep going. These kinds of activities will help you to zone out, giving the body and mind a much needed rest.
Let it go
At the end of the day, your exams are coming – they will happen, and you can’t alter this. Learn to accept there are things in life that you can’t change, and try not to waste your energy panicking or worrying about them.
Instead, create solutions and focus on what you can control. Create a solid revision plan and work through it, paying attention to your smaller study goals discussed above. Spend time working through past papers and prepare yourself as best you can, then just give it your best shot on the day.
By doing this, you should hopefully stay optimistic, focused on your revision and – most importantly – well.
What tips do you have for managing stress over the exam period? Join in the discussion below.