For those of you currently in high school, you will definitely experience the dreaded ‘exam block’ period, wherein you undertake a series of exams for some, if not most, of your subjects. Whilst it’s a common belief that it is normal for students to experience stress during exam periods – especially since it’s such a significant and sudden increase from your typical classes! – it doesn’t mean that that stress should be debilitating and overwhelming.
Academically, exam stress is defined as a “common physiological condition… in which individuals suffer from intense worry and discomfort during the exam period”. Being apprehensive about exams is completely normal, since it helps raise your focus levels (both physically and mentally) and stops you from becoming complacent about your learning.
However, that can turn ugly fast if you are overly stressed and worried about the outcome of the exam, or find little to no relief in completing it – especially if it is to the point that you count yourself as a failure before the exam even begins. Too often I’ve seen this in my students, and it honestly breaks my heart.
The great news is, however, that there are practical things you can do to improve how you handle your stress, and prevent it from becoming as serious as chronic performance anxiety. In this blog, I’ll be going through a few techniques that you can use to help yourself out of stress, and into a healthy, functional mindset.
1. Study healthily
The foundation of a healthy study cycle is the maintenance of a healthy body.
Think of your body and mind as a delicately balanced set of scales. The connection between the two is incredibly powerful, with balance resulting in extreme resilience; likewise, when they are out of balance with each other, you may experience immense disharmony in your life.
Our brain perceives all the sensations that our body’s receptors deliver – so, if we don’t look after ourselves through adequate nutrition and exercise, we may feel sluggish, lethargic, anxious, and even depressed. Exercise however has been proven to increase your attention span, boost your decision making skills, and improve your memory.
Similarly to how our body affects our mind, the opposite also occurs. If our brain is overly stressed or anxious, it may create responses in our body to convince us that we are in danger (for example, a heightened heart rate, sweating, or increased sensitivity). This can lead us to avoiding our tasks or, if left for too long, our immune system can become depleted, leaving us at the mercy of frequent illness, thereby reducing our ability to complete higher order thinking.
Keeping this balance is paramount, especially during exam season. While you may be tempted to stay inside and cram all day, it’s actually important for you to get outside and be active. Go for a run, or even a walk, do some yoga, play some footy or soccer with your friends, or sign up to a recreational sports team that competes every week. Make sure that you have three meals a day, and that you are actively incorporating fresh ingredients into your food – particularly fruits and vegetables, red meats, and one or two forms of grain.
2. Plan in advance
One of the greatest arts you can master in life is the art of preparation and organization.
Many of the things that stress us out during the week take up space in our brain simply because we decide to store it there, rather than dedicating specific, purposefully planned time and effort to it.
To combat that, I would recommend proactively planning various elements at a consistent time and rate. This can range from picking out your clothes to wear to the exam on the day before (or, if you have a uniform, picking out a special item to take in your pocket, like a lucky bracelet or a special exam pen), making your food in advance, or writing down anything you have to do the morning of the exam so you don’t scurry around last minute, trying to remember if you’ve forgotten anything!
This reduces something that people refer to as ‘decision fatigue’. We make so many decisions every single day, and if we are focusing too much on decisions that have little impact on our lives, we are unable to muster the attention and effort to focus on the important ones. Often these people feel the pressure of an important decision but can’t think enough to make it properly, and end up with a ‘this will do’ attitude, not something you want when it comes to performance time!
Of course, it would also be incredibly useful for you to plan out your week, and any major details, study times, or important notes in regards to the exams and assessments you have ahead of you. Strange and silly as it may sound, taking the time to plan gives you exponentially more time to execute and will actually take a ginormous load off your shoulders!
3. Utilise your support networks
This is another tip that will be useful mostly in advance of your exams, but can also be utilized during exam block itself. Make sure that before you undertake any assessment that you actively use the support networks that are available to you!
Teachers will be your one-stop source for revision sheets of exam content, as well as advice resources. After having taught you for however long in the year, your teacher will be very aware of your strengths and weaknesses alike; it is your responsibility to meet up with them and ask for any advice from them as to how you can improve and smash your exams.
Likewise, your parents and guardians will be keenly aware of what your possible strengths and weaknesses are – but most importantly, your parents will be able to keep you accountable to the work you need to do. I would recommend making your proposed study schedule public in your home, and encouraging your parents to check if you’re on track. Even better, with a little communication, you can express to them how you would best feel comfortable and supported in the time leading up to your exam, and they will hopefully be able to accommodate for you!
Parents and guardians, if you’re reading this, make sure you yourself stay proactive in your support of your children! If you would like help in that area, make sure to check out our blogs regarding our top parenting tips, and look out for our parenting eBook coming out soon.
The last piece of your support crew we believe should be your Academic Personal Trainer! Not only are they great mentors and motivators (not to mention incredibly intelligent and knowledgeable), but our tutors are also most often University students themselves, and constantly take exams! Being such high achievers, they will all too often have their own exam stress tips up their sleeves, and will be ready to share them with you whenever you need it.
4. Configure your coping mechanisms
Now, let’s chat about the actual experience in your exam. You may have prepared perfectly, had a great healthy breakfast and a good morning run, and your teachers and family would have encouraged you every step of the way – yet, you can still be sitting in the exam, and feel a giant hole beginning to form in the pit of your stomach.
This is where your coping mechanisms should come in.
Coping mechanisms are small but deadly, and they attack your exam stress directly by helping calm you down into a focused mindset. Here are a few examples of some useful coping mechanisms to use when you start feeling anxious or stressed during an exam:
- Positive reframing: Essentially, take a negative thought captive, and shift your focus onto something positive. You may think that just because you can’t find the answer to a Maths question, you’re a failure; but you may be able to focus instead on the fact that you’re able to still construct the method properly, or that you can complete a whole other set of questions with ease.
- Breathing and visualisation: While it may feel like the pressure is on in regards to how you spend your time, if you are struggling to stay calm in an exam, it is in your best interest to take a few moments out to breathe. Close your eyes, focus on breathing in and out deeply, and picture something you find calming and relaxing – or focus on something you’re looking forward to. I know, I know, it sounds like a weird thing to do – but trust me. It actually, genuinely helps.
5. Don’t sweat the small stuff
Like I mentioned in regards to positive reframing, it is absolutely necessary for you to take negative thoughts captive – and in an exam, where the pressure can be intense simply because of your environment, it is very easy to turn a small detail into a giant life-crushing problem.
Firstly, you have to realise that the stress you’re experiencing is actually an overblown version of something that is, essentially, a natural feeling. Stress is actually your body’s way of helping you meet the demands of your task by increasing your mental and physical focus levels, helping you run at top speed. Recognizing this, instead of deeming yourself incapable, will stop you from freaking out at the first sign of stress, and push you towards managing it properly.
After realizing that, you must tell your brain the absolute truth that is in front of you. This means looking at the test’s contents, and focusing on what you do know, instead of what you don’t. It means looking at giant questions and highlighting the small parts that you do understand, and working on understanding them together as a whole – rather than writing it off as “too much of a mess” or “something we didn’t get taught”.
Most importantly, the greatest stress relief comes in constantly reminding yourself that you are not the mark that you receive from an exam. All too often I hear students say that they have to get a certain mark, or else their futures will be on the line – they won’t get into their chosen university, or a specific program, or achieve anything with their lives.
That is not true, and it never will be true.
You are so, so much more than simply a result on a paper, and you will accomplish things far beyond the reaches of school! Our responsibility as educators is to assist in being your best self, yes, and helping you achieve to the best of your ability; however, very little elements of this life are permanent or life-changing, especially when it comes to subject exams!
6. De-stress with a debrief
Finally, once the exam is over and everything is done, you can relieve any left over anxiety or stress over your results by performing a personal debrief. This can be done either with a close, trustworthy, and encouraging friend or family member, or it can be done all by yourself!
The idea is to actually set aside time after the exam to write down your original intentions and goals going into the exam, followed by your thoughts and experiences during it, and then finishing with how you feel afterwards.
It is important that you don’t just focus on the negative, but that you are specific in focusing on the positive, and shaping the rest as constructive feedback for your next exam (either in that subject, or in a different one!). Write about what you were proud of, what elements surprised you, and what you believe you could do better.
Doing that for each of your exams will actually develop a skill that you will take with you all your life: self-reflection. Whether you realise it or not, self-reflection will, with time, help relieve you of many anxieties and worries, specifically because it provides a positive outlook on both your strengths and your shortcomings. When you know your strengths, you are able to celebrate them consistently, especially when anxiety starts to attack you; and when you are aware of your shortcomings, you can work towards improving them over time, thereby eventually turning them into strengths.
Doing this consistently, and encompassing the other elements outlined above, will set you on the right path towards a healthy, happy mindset – not just during exams, but in any stressful situation in life.