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Exam Stress and Mental Health

Updated: Dec 16, 2021

Stress is a normal emotion to feel when we’re faced with a challenging event or situation. We may feel stress when we’re learning something new or are taking part in a challenge, and it’s very rare not to feel stressed when it’s exam time.

Here we’ll explore what exam stress might look or feel like, how you can use it to your advantage and how you can help reduce exam stress and protect your mental health by creating a realistic and effective revision plan that also incorporates ‘time for you’.

Exams – Keep Things in Perspective

When you’re approaching exams, it can feel like they are taking over your whole life and that if you don’t get good grades it will be ‘the end of the world’.

The most important thing to remember is that ‘exams aren’t everything’. You probably hear lots of people say this. That’s because it’s true.

Exams are one small part of your life and they do not decide your whole future. Whatever happens in your exams, and whatever exam results you get, you can still be successful – just ask Richard Branson, Steven Spielberg, Simon Cowell, Ant & Dec, Olly Murs, Lord Alan Sugar, Robbie Williams, Cheryl, Benedict Cumberbatch, Russell Brand…the list of celebrities with low grades, or even no qualifications at all, is extensive!

Exam grades do not define your worth as a person. Everyone copes differently in different situations and there is so much more to you than just how you performed in an exam. There are other routes you can take to get to where you want go. For starters, you can always re-sit an exam should you want to (and it’s nobody’s business but yours if you do).

Exam Stress is Not Always a Bad Thing

It’s important to try and create a mindset that stress is not ‘a bad thing’; it’s simply a way in which our body has evolved to help us cope and perform better. Stress will always be present in our lives as we try new things and grow as a person.

Stress is our body’s way of preparing us for a challenge. Sometimes the way in which your body respond to stress can be helpful; more oxygen is released to the brain which improves your focus, energy, determination and attention.

In fact, a study in the USA found that students who viewed stress as a threat and tried to suppress the emotion showed decreased effort and performance, whereas those that acknowledged and accepted their stress as their body preparing them for a challenge achieved better results.

Unfortunately, not being afraid of exam stress isn’t enough to make you ‘ace’ a test and get great marks. You still have to put the work in and know your subject. Feeling prepared and that you’ve done all you can will help you feel more relaxed, both before and after you take an exam. This is where revision comes in.

What is the best way to revise and how can you revise effectively?

Well, if possible, start early.

It’s true what people say; the earlier you start your revision, the more prepared you will be – and feel. It’s easy to put it off, particularly if your friends haven’t started yet, but there are real benefits to starting early and not leaving it until the last minute. One of those benefits could be a reduction in exam related stress. Worth it? Totally!

Here are some good reasons why you should start your revision early:

  • It will give you time to understand the material rather than just memorise it

Just memorising words or sentences you do not really understand won’t stand you in good stead in the exam room. Spending time on a topic, repeating it and really understanding it transfers it to your long-term memory and helps prevent those dreaded moments when your mind just goes blank.

  • You can try different revision techniques to find the best one for you

Starting revision early means you have the opportunity to try out different revision techniques. Everyone learns in different ways, in fact there are four different learning styles; Visual Learners, Auditory Learners, Kinesthetics Learners and Read-Write Learners. Knowing which one you are can help you identify the best way to approach your revision.

  • You have time to identify your areas of weakness and take action to improve

It’s likely that some subjects or topics are easier for you than others. By starting your revision early, you can set aside the same amount of study time for every subject rather than gravitating towards those you find the most interesting or easy. Spending enough revision time on every subject will help you identify any areas where you may benefit from extra help from a teacher, tutor, family member or school friend.

  • You can prepare for the exam by practicing your exam technique

You might know your subject but part of the skill of taking an exam is mastering the format. Exam papers are phrased in a certain way and it’s important that your response answers all parts of the question being asked. It’s not enough just to write down everything you know about a particular topic and hope for the best. Start revising early and incorporate practice papers from previous years into your revision timetable. Your teachers should be able to supply these or there are lots available online. Work your way through them and get used to the way questions are phrased. Try to complete them against the clock too.

Of course, it’s all very well and good saying ‘start your revision early’, but what if you’re reading this and it’s only a matter of weeks until you take your exams. Is all hope of a good grade lost? No, definitely not.

Here are some helpful revision tips:

Before you even open a text book, make a revision plan.

Work out how many days you have until the start of your exams and see it as a time bound challenge rather than a threat. Mentally, this will help you regard your revision and exams as a short-term project with an end date. Plan in, or ask a family member to organise, a special activity or event you really enjoy to celebrate the end of your exams. This gives you a positive goal to work towards and something to look forward to.

Make a realistic revision timetable. Establish how much revision you have to do and the timeframe you have to do it in, then break it down into bitesize chunks. You could block out slots for each subject in a weekly revision planner then use a daily revision planner to help you allocate time in each of these slots to focus on specific topics. A revision plan is really beneficial. Once you have one, you won’t wake up each morning worrying about where to start and there is no risk of a subject being left until last or forgotten about.

Take regular short breaks. Breaks are really important and should be factored into your revision planner. Aim to do a few hours of revision each day and mix up your subjects so you don’t get bored. Study for around 45 – 60 minutes then take a short break away from your books. You could make a hot drink, go for a quick walk around the block or put on your favourite music track. Revising for hours without a break will make you tired and impact on your concentration, which will only make you feel anxious.

Schedule in time for you. At the end of each revision session, plan in time to unwind and take a rest by doing something you enjoy. Nobody can work all day, every day without it impacting on their mental health. Arrange to meet a friend for a hot chocolate or watch your favourite film. Exercise is a great stress-buster and helps you stay positive and sleep better so head out for a walk, a run or to your favourite fitness class. You’ll return to your revision refreshed and focused.

Don’t compare yourself to others. Everybody has a different way of revising and people learn things in different ways. If you have a friend who is studying from dusk until dawn don’t think that you need to do the same. Equally, if a friend is only putting in a few hours each day and is feeling very confident don’t be tempted to take your own foot off the gas. Each person’s revision requirement is different, so stick to your revision plan and try and talk about something else when you meet up – as we’ve said before, there is more to life than exams!

Remember to eat. Save the pizza for an end of revision session treat. When you revise you should be fuelling your body and brain with slow energy release foods, such as whole grain bread, rice, pasta, fruit and vegetables. This will prevent blood sugar highs and lows which can impact on your energy and productivity.

Remember to drink. Drink lots of water – you should aim for at least 6-8 glasses each day. Keeping hydrated is really important, and not just when you’re revising. Dehydration causes headaches, dizziness and impairs your concentration and this will not help your exam nerves. That’s why our daily revision planners include hydration trackers.

Revision notes - keep it personal. Customising your revision notes can really help with information recall and organisation. You can do this by colour coding your notes, which helps you focus on the most important facts you need to learn, or by using subject branded revision flashcards.

Revision flashcards are easy to use and support a system of learning developed by Sebastian Leitner, a German science journalist in the 1970’s. Called ‘The Leitner System’, it helps you really focus your revision on the subjects or topics you don’t know. Read more in our blog ‘how to use revision flashcards effectively.

When preparing your revision notes, make sure you use your own words to explain a fact, theory or event rather than simply copying a paragraph out of a text book or website. By using your own words, you have the opportunity to fully absorb and understand what you have just read. When you fully understand something, it’s stored in your long-term memory and should be available for recall when needed.

Don’t sacrifice your sleep to study – or socialise. Sleep is one of the most powerful revision techniques because it helps memory recall. As well as providing the body with vital rest, sleep replays the information we’ve taken in during the day and helps absorb it into our long-term memories. It also readies the brain to take in new information during the day ahead. It helps to reduce brain noise so you think clearly and are more focused. One good night’s sleep won’t work a miracle however, so you need to make it part of your revision timetable to get a good 8-10 hours sleep every night.

Sleep and Exam Stress

Good quality sleep is essential to our mental and emotional well-being. Having a clear head and being able to focus and remember facts will boost your exam confidence. Feeling more confident about your revision and exams will help you feel happier and less stressed.

If revision stress is impacting on the length and quality of your sleep, try having a warm bath before bed, reduce your caffeine intake (chocolate, coffee, tea and fizzy drinks all contain caffeine) and switch off phones, tablets and computers at least an hour before you plan to go to bed so your brain has time to unwind. If you’re really struggling to sleep, it may be time to talk to someone.

Coping with Exam Stress – Useful Resources

Whilst we’ve discussed how some exam stress can help your performance, as long as you view it in a positive way, if you feel extremely stressed and anxious then it’s important you talk to someone about how you are feeling.

There is no stigma attached to stress and anxiety, if anything, the world is more sympathetic and empathetic to these emotions than ever before. Everybody (absolutely everybody) feels extremely stressed and anxious at some point in their life. It’s not a sign that you are failing; it’s a sign that you need to talk to someone you trust and who can help, such as a really good friend, a family member or a teacher.

If you’re not yet ready to share these feelings with someone you know, you could reach out in confidence to one of the excellent organisations established to help the millions of other people experiencing similar emotions; you are not alone.

Here are some links you might find useful:

Further Reading

Young Minds is an amazing charity dedicated to helping young people manage their mental health, and not just at exam time.

Read their helpful guide on coping with exam stress here.

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