Dealing With Exam Stress

How to manage exam stress.

Many students find exams stressful, which is understandable, as your performance in exams can determine important things including what pathways or courses are open to you next year or whether you will have to repeat the year. Your exam results can also affect how you feel about yourself and your capabilities, and you may worry about letting your parents or other loved ones down. In other words, the stakes are high, and this can cause a certain amount of stress and anxiety.  

What is stress?

The stress response is a physiological response to an event that your ‘primitive’ self perceives as a threat. It responds to these ‘threats’ by activating the nervous system and specific hormones, including adrenaline and cortisol. These hormones speed up your heart rate, breathing rate, blood pressure and metabolism which prepare your body to react quickly and handle the pressure of the moment. This prepares you for ‘fight or flight’ – whereby you either face the threat directly or run.

A certain amount of stress can be healthy: it can help you cope in real emergencies or difficult situations, overcome challenges and achieve your goals. However, long term stress can have negative effects on your health and wellbeing. Intense stress can interfere with your exam performance, as your ‘thinking’ brain is effectively hijacked by the more primitive ‘reptilian’ brain, making it difficult for you to recall and express what you need to.

How to cope with exam stress

Exam stress is almost inevitable but there are ways of reducing the amount of pressure you are under and being able to deal with it.

  • Develop academic skills so that you are able to cope with the demands of the school year and make steady progress throughout the academic year. Keeping up to date with classwork, notes, homework and revision will help alleviate stress come exam time.
  • Use breathing, visualization and relaxation techniques to help you ease the stress.
  • Keeping things in perspective. Your performance in your exams is not a life or death situation. Remember that there are plenty of other options like repeating, transferring or doing a PLC. 
  • Mind your health. People use eating fatty and sugary foods, caffeinated drinks, alcohol and smoking as coping mechanisms for stress. It is only human nature to avoid pain and seek pleasure instead. However, doing this often results in even more stress.
  • Get enough sleep. When you are sleep deprived, your focus, attention, and vigilance drift, making it more difficult to receive information. Without adequate sleep and rest, overworked neurons can no longer function to coordinate information properly, and you lose your ability to access previously learned information.
  • Stay hydrated and have a balanced nutritional diet. If you don’t put the right fuel into a car it won’t run. The same goes for your body. Food and water are fuel so, fuel your body accordingly. A healthy body = a healthy mind.
  • Get enough exercise. Sitting at a desk studying all day is not healthy. Aim to get 30 minutes of some form of exercise into you. Studies show that exercise improves mood, increases energy, strengthens memory and enhances concentration.

If you feel as though your stress is unmanageable, it may be helpful to speak to someone. Parents, teachers, a school counsellor or a youth worker are people who may be able to help you cope.

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