Tossing and turning at night? Struggling to keep any food down? Can’t concentrate?
Exam stress can take a big toll on both your physical and mental wellbeing, and it’s affecting a greater number of students at alarming rates. In fact, a study by youth service ReachOut revealed that almost 50% of students aged between 16 and 25 experienced worrying levels of exam stress.
While some students are able to pass through studying and their exams without breaking a sweat, there are others who find their hearts racing and hands shaking throughout their student life.
So, are you looking for ways squash the anxiety and stride through your exam worry-free?
Read on to learn how to deal with exam stress.
Or, watch and learn. Steps to take when you’re just too stressed to study:
1. Eat a healthy diet
Skipping breakfast and relying on chocolate and chips to get you through the day might seem like a reasonable (and tasty!) coping mechanism, but an unhealthy eating pattern can cause burnout and worsen your mood.
This is because consuming high-sugar foods results in blood sugar spikes and crashes, which then causes energy levels to rise and fall. Besides impacting your mood, it will also make it harder to study!
Instead, eat a balanced diet and stock up on the best brain foods, like leafy greens, berries and nuts. Slow-burning carbs like oats and wholegrain bread are also great for providing the body with a constant supply of energy.
2. Get enough sleep
Nothing feels worse than sweaty palms and droopy eyes.
During exam period, it’s critical that you get enough sleep. Sleep deprivation can decrease energy levels, make you irritable and diminish your concentration. Getting at least seven to nine hours of sleep every night will recharge your body and decrease your anxiety.
At the same time, sleep has been proven to assist in the consolidation of memory, meaning the more you sleep, the better your chances of retaining the information you learn while studying. Better lay off those all-nighters, then, and start catching some Zs!
3. Exercise regularly
Exercise is a superb way of combatting stress. The more physical activity you do during exam season, the more positive and energized you’ll feel. This is because exercise decreases the production of stress hormones like cortisol, while releasing endorphins — brain chemicals that act as natural painkillers and mood elevators!
That’s why we suggest that every student adds a few exercises to their stress management plan, even if that’s just a 30-minute jog or cycle a few times a week — it’ll really help when it comes to dealing with stress.
4. Try breathing techniques
When you’re feeling overwhelmed during a study session, take a few minutes to practise some breathing exercises. Deep breaths increase the supply of oxygen to the body, which activates the parasympathetic nervous system and promotes calmness. At the same time, diverting your focus to your breathing will temporarily clear your mind of other worries.
Next time the stress gets the best of you, try the popular 4-7-8 breathing technique for a minute or two: inhale for four seconds, hold your breath for seven, and steadily exhale for eight.
5. Study with friends
The more time you spend alone in that bedroom revising, the more overthinking and pondering you’re going to do. If possible, dedicate a few hours a week to studying with friends. Remember: they’re going through exam stress, too!
Whether it’s quizzing each other, sharing notes or discussing potential exam questions, studying with friends can get you out of your head and help build your confidence. Socializing also contributes to the release of dopamine, an important neurotransmitter that happens to stimulate memory.
6. Learn time management
Learning time management techniques when studying for your finals is essential.
If you’ve got more than one test coming up, or if you’re working and studying at the same time, it can get overwhelming trying to fit everything in. But if you learn how to accurately manage your time, you can be on the way to becoming a successful student who’s organized, focused and stress-free.
Try these tips to lower levels of exam-related stress:
- Set different times of the day to study for each exam
- Take breaks every 40–50 minutes
- Solve past exam papers while timing yourself
- Treat “study time” as though it’s a fixed appointment
- Know when it’s time for revision and leisure — don’t combine the two.
7. Believe in yourself
A lot of stress and anxiety comes from self-doubt. When negative thoughts and catastrophizing take over, try to remind yourself of all your past achievements and inner strength. Chances are, you’ve dealt with similarly challenging situations in the past and made it through.
A little more of “yes, I can!” and you’ll transform your attitude. An optimistic outlook will empower you, and that can have a positive effect on your problem-solving abilities and learning.
8. Release your emotions
Keeping things bottled up won’t help you overcome feelings of stress; if anything, it can magnify them. If you’re worried about that literature exam or anxious that your grades might disappoint your parents, for example, try to verbalize those thoughts.
Whether it’s shouting from the rooftops or talking to a friend, this will help you release your feelings of anxiety. Alternatively, if no one else is around, try talking to yourself. Dr. Andrew Crumey, novelist and lecturer at Northumbria University, has the following tip to share: “Stress is inevitable — panic isn’t. Be firm with yourself, but also be kind. Imagine your friend is feeling what you’re feeling, think what you’d say to them, and say it out loud to yourself.”
9. Take regular breaks
Exam period might feel like your social life has been stripped away, and you probably won’t have much time for hobbies. Although this is fairly true, it’s still important that you take regular breaks from the monotonous routine of studying. Meet friends for an hour or two, watch your favorite TV show or go for a walk outside — according to Benenden Health, fresh air can help relieve stress and anxiety!
Even short breaks have the power to improve your mood and increase your productivity. Just don’t wait until you’ve reached the verge of a breakdown before resting. Instead, make breaks methodical and intentional!
As MyTutor CMO Nicola Anderson puts it: “If you force yourself to keep going, it could make your anxiety even worse. If it’s your first time sitting an exam, it’s completely OK to feel nervous [...]. Just know that the build-up is the worst bit and once exams are over, you’ll have weeks to chill out and live your best life!”
10. Get off your phone
Admit it: when studying gets boring (when is it ever not boring, right?), your hand automatically reaches for your phone.
Believe it or not, as hilarious as those cat compilation videos may be, increased screen time has been proven to increase stress and have a negative impact on mental health. Not what you want when you’re already feeling anxious to begin with, right?
To keep from interrupting your flow while studying, put your phone on silent and ignore notifications. Where you can, limit your phone usage in general as this can improve sleep quality and decrease your risk for depression.
11. Enjoy some music
Some people enjoy studying with music — it actually has many benefits!
Ambient, instrumental or classical music can help you concentrate better, and the good news is that there are countless playlists on Spotify and YouTube created especially for study sessions.
During your well-deserved breaks, you can even consider having a good sing or dance — just do some stretches before you start the latter! These activities are bound to release tension, relax your muscles and elevate your mood. Like exercise, singing releases endorphins!
12. Don’t multitask
You might think you’re managing your time efficiently by multitasking during your studying, but you’re actually increasing your stress levels. Multitasking is said to increase heart rate and blood pressure, which of course heightens anxiety.
When you’re suffering from exam stress, avoid doing too many things at once. Manage your time, separate hours for different exams, and know when it’s time to stop. A great tip is to start your day by listing all your to-do tasks, allocate times for them and stick by your strict routine without going into overdrive.
Meditation is a grounding technique as old as time. Focusing on bodily sensations and the breath anchors us to the present moment, while observing thoughts as they come and go quietens the mind.
Anyone who often feels stressed can benefit from making a habit out of meditation. Even ten minutes a day can offer health benefits like reduced anxiety and improved attention. Guided meditations are widely available online and an ideal way for beginners to get started.
14. Practice acceptance
You could try fighting or challenging it but, at the end of the day, no matter what you do, exam time is stressful. Thoughts like “why does it have to be like this?” will only create resistance in the mind.
Instead, accepting the stressful nature of exam seasons will at least spare you the unnecessary discomfort that comes from wallowing in frustration. Accepting the unpleasant sensations that come with stress, like stomach aches and fatigue, instead of wishing they would change or go away, can also help avoid worsening the problem.
15. Seek professional guidance
Sometimes deep breaths and enough sleep just won’t cut it. If you’ve been trying different things for a while, to no avail, don’t be afraid to reach out to your university counseling center for support. That’s what they’re there for!
In the words of Dr. Hana Patel, a general practitioner and honorary lecturer at the University of Kent, “Stress can make existing mental health problems feel harder to cope with. Make sure you get enough sleep, food, water, and exercise. If you take regular medication, keep up with your routine.”
With large numbers of students expressing mental health concerns, know you are not alone in your struggle. The idea that something has to be going extremely wrong to seek help is unhelpful at a time when you’re feeling vulnerable. Listen to your body and make use of all the resources you have access to!
Thankfully, many techniques and resources can prove beneficial to those coping with exam stress. But as chronic stress has been linked to serious conditions like heart disease and diabetes, it’s good to follow these steps in your day-to-day life, exam season or not!
- Minimize the time you spend on your phone. If possible, avoid using your phone at all within an hour of falling asleep at night.
- Get in touch with your feelings and talk about them openly, whether that’s with a friend, parent or counselor. Suppressing emotions will only exaggerate the stress!
- When exercising, aim for a total of 5 hours each week. This can be broken down into half-hour jogs five times a week.
- Be kind to your body. Replenish your energy levels with adequate sleep and as many nutrient-dense foods as possible.
What ways have you found the best to deal with exam stress? Let us know in the comments, and don't forget to share this with your friends. You never know who might need some help!
Originally published 12 June 2019. Contains contributions by Angela Stephanou.