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Macmillan Higher Education


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Exam stress is natural and manageable

Exams are stressful

Exam season is the most stressful time of year for many students. Pressure to succeed can come from family, potential employers, peers, and probably from yourselves. Exams pose a threat both in the short-term (“what if I don’t know the answers?”) and in the long-term (“what if I don’t pass my degree and then can’t get a job?”). Two common responses to exam stress are ‘flight’ and ‘freeze’. Flight (also known as avoidance) can involve postponing revision, if it feels too stressful, or even not going to the exam itself. Freeze refers to the stress-induced ‘mind blank’ during exams, when it is hard to think straight. Some students get panic attacks, which can include intense physical symptoms like breathlessness, palpitations, and nausea. Given that exam stress is can impact on both academic progress and wellbeing, what can you do to manage it?

Stress is natural

It is vital to acknowledge that stress is a natural part of life. Given exams are important, it is natural that they trigger anxiety. Acute stress is a way that the body prepares for action (e.g., increased heart rate and blood flow to the major muscles away from digestion leads to nausea). In fact, for many tasks, a moderate degree of stress can help people to focus and get things done (e.g. playing sport and meeting deadlines).

Stress is manageable

The good news is that once you start to accept that exam stress is natural, then you can start to manage it. Here are four tips to get started.

Tip 1) Talk to someone

It is healthy to share your experience of exam stress to get perspective and work out ways forward. You may benefit from tips on study skills and trying out a different way of revising (e.g., a more active revision style, revising with a course mate, or in the library rather than at home). You may also be eligible for reasonable adjustments if you have a particular mental or physical health problem (you can contact your university support services to discuss this). Or, you may be able to develop new ways of managing stress (see Tips 3 and 4).

Tip 2) Take regular study breaks

During revision are you taking regular study breaks? Although students often feel guilty when they stop working before exams, regular breaks can actually improve focus, sleep, and productivity. Are you constantly distracted by your smartphone? Research shows that having your phone near you reduces focus, even if you don’t check it. Try moving your phone to another room when you are studying and then get up to check it during your planned break.

Tip 3) Try mindfulness to calm your mind

Mindfulness can help people to slow down and calm down. It involves paying attention to the present moment without getting caught up in self-criticism and worries. It is linked to reductions in stress, anxiety and depression, and improvements in sleep and focus. A great way to start is to try being mindful during daily activities, e.g., by paying close attention to all five senses while brushing your teeth or drinking a cup of tea.

Tip 4) Look after yourself

Consider how you are sleeping, eating, and living. To get through exam period, you need to look after your body to maximise your mind’s capacity to process and retain information. What would you advise a good friend who was feeling stressed during exam period? Are you eating fresh food and getting fresh air? Make one small change to treat yourself more like you would treat a friend!

Kate Joseph and Chris Irons are co-authors of Managing Stress, from the Pocket Study Skills series.

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