Monday, 9 May 2016

Exam stress getting you down?

The exam season is upon us, so here are a few tips for coping well.

First you need to realise that the way our bodies react to stress evolved thousands of years ago to help our cave-dwelling ancestors survive. But the kind of stress they faced was usually quite sudden and life-threatening, like a tiger jumping out and wanting to eat them!
Faced with a tiger there aren’t many choices. You have to run faster than he does and climb up a tree, or fight better than him and chase him away (or get yourself a new tiger-skin coat).

Unfortunately, running away or fighting won’t help when you’re faced with an exam. In fact, it’s pretty sure to make things worse.
But your body hasn’t evolved to deal with exams, and it still releases the same stress hormones which are designed to make you run faster and fight better. So just when you need to sit still, concentrate, think and remember, your hormones tell you to prepare for physical action and react on impulse rather than thought.  

Are you suffering from exam stress?

You may be, if any of the following apply to you ...
You have more trouble than usual:
  • concentrating and remembering,
  • planning, or making decisions,
  • organising information, your thoughts or your time,
You have physical symptoms you don’t normally have, like:
  • headaches (especially if you can distract yourself out of them)
  • stomach aches, feeling sick, diarrhoea/constipation,
  • rapid pulse or heartbeat,
  • muscle tension or stiffness, aches and pains
  • sleep problems,
Your outlook becomes more pessimistic than usual:
  • negative thoughts and attitude, feelings of panic,
  • lack of confidence, doubting yourself,
  • irritability or anger about things that normally wouldn’t matter.

Dealing with exam stress

  • get a check-up from your GP to rule out causes other than exam stress, especially if you have physical symptoms
  • being stressed can affect your ability to fight off illness. Being unwell can also make you feel more stressed. So eat a healthy, varied diet and stick to healthy habits
  • exercise even if you feel tired; it gives a natural release to the hormones that are preparing you for physical action
  • don’t rely on stimulants of any kind (sugar/sweets, tea, coffee, cigarettes, alcohol) to keep you awake or focussed
  • have fun every day; laughter decreases stress hormones and increases infection-fighting antibodies
  • get a good night’s sleep; if this is a problem use relaxing baths, soothing music, taking more exercise, a regular bed time routine or relaxation exercises to help
  • make a revision timetable, and stick to it: try alternating subjects you find easy and those that are more challenging
  • don’t expect to revise solidly for hours and still take things in; 30-45 minutes followed by a 10-15 minute break is good
  • schedule some time to relax – you will think more clearly and learn more easily when you return to your studies
  • different people concentrate better at different times of day: try to organise your revision when you work most effectively and your relaxation activities at other times
  • be realistic – focus on revising and completing the exams as well as you can, without comparing yourself to others
  • use the revision and exam techniques you’ve been taught
  • if you have specific worries, write them down, look at each one and think of as many possible solutions as you can. Identify the best answer you thought of for each one and act on it. Get help to do this if you need it
  • keep in touch with friends, social support is important
  • learn relaxation techniques and use them regularly, or download our free five minute audio
  • don’t feel embarrassed about asking for help if you need it from friends, family, teachers or a doctor

Think Positive Thoughts

Thinking positively about your ability to pass can never replace revision, but if you expect to be calm and confident when exam day comes you’re more likely to be that way. It’s true that if you hear something often enough you begin to believe it, so encourage positive thinking with ‘affirmations’.
An affirmation is a single sentence that sums up how you want to feel. It must be positive (‘I do ..’ rather than ‘I do not..’) in the present tense (‘I am’ rather than ‘I will be’) and realistic (using ’I am capable of learning a year’s work in half an hour’ won’t make it so).
You can make up your own affirmation, or use something like ‘I remain calm, confident and focussed during exams’ or ‘In exams I easily remember and apply everything I have learned’.
Five times every morning, and five times every night (when you brush your teeth is good) look yourself in the eyes in a mirror and say your affirmation aloud. Say it confidently, as if you already believe it. It may be difficult to do this at first, but muster up some acting skills. After a while your mind begins to accept it. Once you believe it you act (and most importantly feel) as if it’s true.
And good luck in your exams.

Are you a teacher? I can provide this blog as a leaflet to print and give to your students, please email me.
Author: is a professional stress management coach, specialising in working with individuals and smaller employers to minimise stress and maximise feeling in control.Debbie is has also written about helping people with IBS in the Hypnotherapy Handbook which is available from
Find out more about Debbie's services on  or phone 01977 678593

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