Managing Exam Stress
Stress levels can be higher than usual around exam time. And while a bit of stress can help you to stay motivated and focused, too much can be pretty unhelpful. Exam stress can be overwhelming, while confusing and exhausting you.
If it all seems to be getting on top of you, there are loads of things you can do to keep calm and get perspective.
Having to revise a lot of information in a short space of time and not understanding course material can be a big stress. Look for practical advice on effective study techniques that can also help keep you calm.
Keep a routine and take regular breaks
It’s important to have regular study breaks and make time for relaxation and exercise. Going for a walk, run, or to the gym is not a waste of time, it’s a great way to clear your head and can help focus.
Watching your favourite TV show or going to the movies are also good ways to take a break from studying.
Definite No No’s
Caffeine (eg. coffee, caffeine tablets, Red Bull) and other drugs (eg. speed or coke) give you a short lift before making you crash and burn. They can make you feel sick and can interfere with your sleep and therefore your ability to concentrate. You actually study better with regular breaks, getting lots of sleep, and from exercising (seriously!).
Options for the future
If you are doing the leaving cert, getting the marks for your first preference is great, but it’s not the end of the world if you don’t – there are other options to get into your course. These include deferring and getting some practical experience in your field, doing further study, retaking some subjects in some cases, or transferring in after a year or two. If you do accept another offer, you may find that you like it or it suits you better.
External pressures around exams can be huge. These can be hard to deal with, especially with family and people you respect, but you need to remember that it is your life and your exam, with you in control.
There are some things that might help you manage expectations:
- Base expectations on your past performance and doing the best you can do.
- Put the exam in context. In overall scheme of things, how important is it? If you don’t do as well as you’d hoped there are always alternatives. It’s not going to dictate whether you are a good or a bad person, or whether you are a success or failure. Exams can’t measure these sorts of things, all they measure is how well you can present the material asked for by the examiner; nothing more, nothing less.
- Take it as a compliment (admittedly this can be easier said than done). These people want you to do well and think highly of what you are capable of. Their definition of achieving is sometimes a little (or a lot) misguided, so you need to tell people about what you think is realistic.
- Talk to them, find out what they hope for you and tell them what you are thinking and feeling.
- Use the expectations of yourself and others to assist your studying.
Talk to people about how you are feeling, see if they have any advice or help they can offer.
- It’s important to ask for and accept support from those around you, especially family members.
Look After Yourself
It is easy to let exams get on top of you and to forget to look after yourself. If possible try to get a good nights sleep every night. Its a good time to make an effort to eat healthily, making sure you eat plenty of fruits and vegetables.
Ask For & Accept Support
If you’re feeling overwhelmed, you might find it helpful to talk to a teacher or counsellor. Its also important to ask for, and accept, support from your family if you can. This support might be practical, like picking you up from the library, or emotional, including advice or help.
Theres always a light at the end of the tunnel. Exams have a beginning and an end, and the stress that goes along with them should end with the exam. Once the papers in, theres nothing more you can do about it, which means its now time to relax and enjoy the summer.
Tension is who you think you should be. Relaxation is who you are. – Ancient Chinese proverb
Between exam stress, work anxiety and money problems, it often seems like life is one long, hectic chain of events. But no matter how busy you are, its essential for your mental health and well-being that you make time to relax. Its easy to forget to make time for yourself when things get stressful. Sometimes you’re just so pre-occupied with getting through each day that a long time can go by before you remember to do anything relaxing. Many ways of relaxing, like walking or sitting quietly, are very simple and easy to do. Others, like yoga or meditation, require some training and discipline. Depending on the type of person you are, you’ll find different activities relaxing, from playing football to reading a book. Put aside some time in the day to try out some of the following suggestions:
- Go for a walk
- Take time to notice your surroundings
- Listen to your favourite music
- Go fishing
- Sit quietly in a park and look at the trees
- Play your favourite sport
- Take a bath, lie back, shut out everything else and relax
- Go to a movie or watch a video
- Visit a friend
- Go for a swim
- Do a puzzle
- Read a book
- Practice yoga or meditation
Learning To Breathe
Its something we do every minute, but you’d be surprised how many of us aren’t doing it right. When you’re anxious, your breathing can be quick and shallow, which reduces the amount of oxygen going to your organs. Learning how to breathe efficiently can help reduce some of the physiological symptoms of anxiety.
Try this at home: To become aware of your breathing, place one hand on your upper chest and one on your stomach. Take a breath and let your stomach swell forwards as you breathe in, and fall back gently as you breathe out. Try to get a steady rhythm going by taking the same depth of breath each time. Your hand on your chest should be almost completely still.
When you feel comfortable with this technique, try to slow your breathing rate down by taking a short pause after you’ve exhaled and before you breathe in again. Initially, it can feel as though you’re not getting enough air in, but with regular practice this slower rate will soon start to feel comfortable.
It can help to imagine you’re blowing up a big balloon in your stomach when you breathe in, that will deflate when you breathe out. This exercise helps you to breathe more oxygen into your stomach rather than restricting the amount of oxygen by breathing into your chest.
Meditation is the practice of consciously emptying your mind of thoughts in order to achieve a state of pure relaxation.
By finding a quiet corner somewhere for ten or fifteen minutes of meditation every day, experts believe we can improve our overall health and wellbeing.
One of the main principles behind meditation is that by removing negative and wandering thoughts and fantasies from our minds, we can calm ourselves and achieve a deep sense of peace.
Any negative thoughts like exam stress, problems with parents or relationship troubles contribute to the pollution of our minds, say the experts.
Blocking them out for a while allows our minds to focus on deeper, more relaxing thoughts.
It can be surprisingly difficult to sit still for ten minutes and empty our minds your mind can often seem determined to wander back towards daily concerns, like what to cook for dinner or whether to go out that night. You may even find yourself drifting off to sleep in you’ve had a busy day. Practising meditation techniques regularly will train your mind into staying focused for longer.
Try concentrating on repeated actions like breathing and humming this will help you to enter a more relaxed state of consciousness. You could also try focusing on a certain object or thought, or while keeping your eyes open, focus on a single sight in the room.
One useful meditation exercise would be to name every part of your body and focus your consciousness on that part. While doing this you should be aware of any tension on any part of your body and trying to imagine this tension releasing.
Take up a weekly exercise class or join a sports team. It might not seem relaxing but by using up adrenalin and other hormones you can reduce stress and relax your muscles. Yoga and Tai Chi are particularly relaxing because they focus on breathing techniques and centring the mind but doing any form of exercise will help you relax.
Go for a relaxing massage if you feel tense and under strain. If your budget doesn’t stretch to a massage parlour, ask a friend to work on your muscles instead. If they haven’t been trained, ask them not to be too rough on the sensitive muscles of your back or neck. Or simply run a hot bath with some scented oils to release your tension. Playing some soothing music and lighting candles should help you unwind.
Visualising calming images can help release stress and help you relax. Emptying your mind of all its cares and focusing on one mental image for a period of time allows your inner train of thought to finally switch off.
Try this visualisation exercise out: Sit or lie in a quiet room with your eyes closed. Visualise your thoughts as a mass of bubbles. Exhale slowly through your mouth. As you do, imagine all those thought bubbles being blown away. You should already begin to feel more relaxed.
If there’s a specific thought or issue you can’t stop thinking about, imagine a large bubble blowing up from your head. Visualise a word written across the bubble that represents this issue. Then imagine taking a big needle, and bursting the bubble. See the word melt away in the mist created by the bubble bursting. Imagine yourself saying – I won’t waste any more energy thinking about this now, I can’t solve this today. I’m putting it aside and allowing myself to relax.
Now pay attention to your breathing. Breathe in through your nose in a long, steady breath. Feel your ribcage expanding out on either side, and lifting up your lungs are two balloons that you are filling with fresh, clean air. Breathe out slowly and evenly through your mouth, feeling your ribcage slowly drop. Stay focused on your breathing. If your mind wanders, use the bubble bursting visualisation and then bring your attention back to your breath. Stay with this exercise for as long as is comfortable to you. When you’re confident and able to induce relaxation easily, you can use it anywhere, whenever you need it.
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