Five ways of dealing with exam stress

Thousands of people right now are heads down revising or in the middle of taking exams. Dealing with the stress that comes with those exams is part and parcel of study. It affects all of us whether it’s our very first exam or one of our last. Here we look at the effects of exam stress on students and ways to deal with it.

The pandemic has meant we have got used to organising everything online. Time devoted to revising and preparing for exams has blended into our everyday online lives, and in some ways having less opportunity to walk away from revision preparation has made it more stressful because the daily routine has become repetitive.

In any ‘normal’ year we would have plenty of distractions to get in the way of revision, from warm weather (sometimes) to family responsibilities, work, enjoying a social life, travelling and all the usual daily tasks that we would be cramming into our busy days.

Those of us involved in education acknowledge that exam stress is real and is always taken seriously. With more acceptance of the importance of wellbeing among students, employees, and families it’s important to recognise that the basic truths of dealing with exam stress don’t change.

Here are five simple ways for dealing with exam stress for students

1. Exams aren't everything

This might seem hard to believe at the moment, but they are only one component of your university study experience. Formal assessment of anything we do can vary a great deal depending upon the task and the outcome. A lot of your university work is not assessed by exams. They are important but the other aspects of completing a degree matter just as much.

Admission to university uses a number of indicators as well as exams, and the same principal applies as you make progress in your studies. This is also recognised by employers when they are assessing candidates – individual exam scores don’t feature as highly as many people imagine. They encourage employees to learn on the job.

The progress we make as individuals is cumulative. All learning is a series of tiny changes and improvements. The steps someone has already taken to get to the moment of the exam is just as important as the completion of the task that is set.

Once the exam is over then it is history (not literally!) Its very tempting to pour over the details of an exam and agonise on what-if’s, but that is pointless. Preparing for what comes next should be your focus.

2. Get organised

If you have got as far as university then it’s unlikely that you would not have prepared for study and exam revision before. Those school subjects that you wished would just end are long finished – whatever your current situation it's likely you are where you are because you planned it that way.

Organising for exam revision at undergraduate or masters level is a continuation of the same steps you have been through. It’s likely to be more intense and requiring a greater level of focus. Prioritisation of your schedule into manageable chunks is the same.

With most campus facilities restricted over the past year then in all likelihood you will be focussed on organising the study space around you. Universities are taking steps to allow activity on the premises, albeit in a socially distanced way, and if you can get back into your library or study space then try it out to see if it helps you.

As of now the restrictions in the UK have eased a little so this will make access to facilities better than was the case last year. Take time to use any social facilities offered if you can. If they are provided then they will meet the health guidelines and a change of scenery will make a huge difference to your sense of wellbeing.

3. Get into good habits

  • Take regular breaks – even though its tempting to power on through the brain can only concentrate in periods of between 30 and 45 minutes
  • Keep hydrated – water is amazing stuff and you’ll be surprised how effective it is at staving off those cravings for snacks.
  • Eat well with low carb foods that release energy slowly such as rice, pasta, fruit and veg. This avoids the ‘sugar-rush’.
  • When and where to work – our bodies follow ‘circadian rhythms’ – which regulates the sleep/wake function. Research has demonstrated we all have certain times of the day when we can perform better so follow a study pattern that suits your body.
  • Activity- exercise in the form of a short walk will help clear your head and de-stress.
  • Help your sleep by avoiding too much alcohol or heavy food late at night. Its tempting to blast through a 12inch deep pan with extra pepperoni at 1.30 in the morning, but probably not great for your digestion! Once exams are over you can plan your food celebrations.
  • Relaxation is as much part of the schedule as study, and you should include that in your calendar.

4. Steer clear of the negative stuff

Set realistic goals. You can’t hope to achieve 50 items on your revision to do list, but five is perfectly possible. If you obsess about what you have failed to achieve you won’t take comfort from what you have achieved.

You will get great satisfaction from competing challenges that you set yourself

Don’t miss out on recreation even though it’s not so easy to mix at the moment. Allow time for activities that will provide a different kind of mental stimulation such as reading or music or crafts.

Caffeine and alcohol in moderation – headaches and hangovers are not much fun when you need to study.

5. Get support from friends, colleagues, and family

Its tough having to interact online at the moment, but the great thing about Skype/Zoom/Teams etc is that you can be fully connected with someone important to you. They could be many thousands of miles away and would not be available to you so easily in person.

As everyone is experiencing isolation and anxiety to some degree people are feeling more connected to each other than would be normal. Whatever worries you are experiencing are not unusual and in fact are being felt by most of us. We have all become aware of the need to speak up and share our concerns, and for some this is now a public duty, so you are not unique in your worries.

Family, other students and people in your friendship group are wanting to hear how you are - your thoughts matter to them as much as theirs matter to you.