Blogs 14 May

A Therapist’s Guide to Managing Exam Stress

During Mental Health Awareness Week, Kooth Counsellor Neil Garrity offers some invaluable advice to help with anxiety and stress this exam season…

Click the headings below if you wish to skip straight to that topic:

  1. Revision and exam stress
  2. Support from school or college
  3. Anxiety and food
  4. Managing stress levels
  5. Mindful breathing exercise
  6. Exam and revision tips
  7. Revision techniques
  8. Exam preparation
  9. Before the exam
  10. The exam itself
  11. More support

Revision and exam stress

Anxiety and stress are a normal, if unpleasant, part of life. These feelings can feel a little overwhelming at times, especially when it comes to exams and dealing with revision.
This is why is really important to look after yourself as much as you can.

In dealing with issues around revision, exams and stress, remember not to suffer in silence. Coursework, revision and exam pressures are very common issues for young people so you are not alone.


Support from school or college

Consider sitting down with your Head of Year, Personal Tutor or teacher and tell them how you’re feeling. Their role is not to put pressure on students, but to provide support so that education is something to enjoy.

It’s also important for you to talk to your parents, close family or friends about what’s going on so they can understand and appreciate how you are feeling and offer their own support.


Anxiety and food

When it comes to stress and eating habits, try to avoid anything that causes ‘chemical stimulation’ if you can. Avoid drinks like tea, coffee, fizzy drinks or energy drinks as much as possible as these can increase feelings of anxiety.

Try to avoid foods that are full of sugar and salts, which again have a detrimental effect on our system and well-being. Drink plenty of water (or non-sugary, caffeine-free drinks) to keep yourself hydrated. This will help your mind to focus and improves energy levels.

As long as you are not lactose intolerant (an inability to digest dairy products), milk and dairy-based products are good for reducing anxiety and stress. Milk contains ‘Tryptophan’, which is a natural calming chemical that helps to produce a relaxing effect on the body. A bowl of porridge in the morning made with milk is great for the system and has a slow-release effect on our systems. Bananas and yoghurts are really good too.

If you are not eating properly or your appetite has gone off a little, try to eat small meals often. This can help regulate the body’s mood too.


Managing stress levels

Feeling stressed and anxious – no matter what the reasons – means that you need to look after yourself better. The process of being kinder to yourself and reducing your stress levels may involve very small changes, so again, recognise this and try to be kinder to yourself:

1) Don’t blame yourself for the way that you are feeling

You didn’t ask to feel stressed or anxious, so treat yourself as you would a great friend – with support, understanding and love

2) Get to know your breathing

When we are stressed, anxious or tense, we tend to breathe in a very shallow way, often with quick, short breaths. Doing this means we’re getting less oxygen, which means we start to breathe quickly to try and compensate. Unfortunately, this results in a heightened feeling of stress or anxiety.

Try to make your breathing slow, regular and deep (but make sure that all three of these are comfortable for you). You will need to concentrate on doing this at first. Start by sitting quietly – you can do this while watching TV if you like but you can do it anywhere.

The best way to get the most out of deep breathing is to do ‘abdominal breathing‘. This is achieved by inhaling slowly and deeply through your nose into the bottom of your lungs. Your chest should move only slightly, while your stomach rises up as you inhale. You can see if this is happening if you simply put your hand on your stomach. You will notice it pushing your hand up with each breath you take.

Do this for a few minutes, checking your breathing. It takes practice but no-one will notice what you are doing so don’t worry about what others may say or think: only you will know!

Mindful breathing exercise

The main goal of mindful breathing is to simply provide a calm, non-judging awareness, that allows thoughts and feelings to come and go without getting caught up in them. The best way to achieve mindful breathing is:

• Sit comfortably, with your eyes closed and your spine reasonably straight
• Bring your attention to your breathing
• Imagine that you have a balloon in your tummy. Every time you breathe in, the balloon inflates. Each time you breathe out, the balloon deflates. Notice the sensations in your abdomen as the balloon inflates and deflates. Your abdomen rising with the in-breath and falling with the out-breath
• When you breathe-in, say the word CALM to yourself
• And when you breathe-out, say the word RELAX to yourself
• Thoughts will come into your mind, and that’s okay, because that’s just what the human mind does. Simply notice those thoughts, and then gently bring your attention back to your breathing and to the words CALM and RELAX
• Likewise, you can notice sounds, physical feelings, and emotions around you. Again, just bring your attention gently back to your breathing
• You don’t have to follow any of those thoughts or feelings, so don’t judge yourself for having them, or analyse them in any way. It’s okay for the thoughts to be there. Just notice those thoughts, and let them drift on by, bringing your attention back to your breathing
• Whenever you notice that your attention has drifted off and is becoming caught up in thoughts or feelings, simply notice that your attention has drifted slightly…. and then gently bring your attention and focus back to your breathing

It’s okay and natural for thoughts to enter into your awareness and for your attention to follow them, but no matter how many times this happens, just keep bringing your attention back to your mindful breathing.

3) Check your shoulders

This one goes hand-in-hand with the breathing exercise. When we are tense or anxious, our shoulders tend to rise up and our muscles tighten up in the shoulders and neck area.
As with your breathing, learn to recognise just where your shoulders are. If they are raised and feel tense, then so will you! If they are like this, become aware of them and then ‘drop them down’ so that they are relaxed. You can do this at the same time you are practicing your breathing.

Checking your shoulders regularly to see if they are tense and then ‘dropping them down’ will help you to feel much more relaxed. When you do this with the breathing exercise it makes feeling anxious almost impossible.

Physical exercise is also a great way to deal with stress and anxiety, so if there is a particular sport that you are into, it will help. Yoga is also a good idea as it focuses on breathing but think about other types of exercise too. If you can manage going for a walk in the park or swimming, then try that too.


Exam and revision tips

An approach
1. If you feel it will help you, set a revision timetable, revising certain subjects at certain times
2. If you feel the need for silence while revising, do your best to make this possible
3. If you like to work to music, get some headphones and listen to your favourite songs while you work. Try to listen to something familiar – this will help to put you in a positive frame of mind during your revision. It can also reduce the risk of distraction, under the right circumstances
4. Make sure you have a break from revision. Try to arrange things so that you have a “day off” revising. This will mean when you re-start your revision, you will be a little fresher and improve motivation
5. Try to revise one section of notes, or one set of topics together
6. If you have trouble with specific details, try to understand the topic generally instead of getting too bogged down with details. If you just choose to ignore topics, you may be limiting your options too much when it comes to answering questions. A broad understanding is often sufficient to answer most or part of a question

Revision techniques

Try to develop your own technique for revision. Different techniques work for different people and depending on the type of subject being revised, some techniques are more suitable than others.

Here are some:
1. Read and memorise
2. Summary notes – short version of main notes.
Try listing keywords for each topic covered, which can act as “triggers” for other ideas. Some kind of diagrammatic representation of notes can also be helpful.
3. Revise with a friend or other students. If possible, exchange ideas during revision as this can be very helpful to you and others in understanding topics and building confidence
4. Q&A. Get a friend to ask you specific questions about topics and think up questions to ask your friend. This will test and help to build your own understanding
5. Make up a set of revision cards. With one main topic per card and each topic listing ideas or information for this topic. You can carry these cards with you and, if you choose, get them out and revise while a passenger in a car or on the bus or when queuing somewhere
6. If possible, ask your teacher or tutor to revise topics you are unsure about and try to get the tutor to help you to fully understand the topic


Exam preparation

1. Try not to treat the exam as anything other than a normal school or college day, other than that you are doing an exam. Try to follow your normal routine. This will help you relax
2 .Try to think that after the exam, you can relax and won’t have to do any further revision – this will help you feel calm before the event too
3. Get a good night’s sleep and do not stay up late revising unless you feel this is vital. A final review of topics and a review of your strong and not-so-strong areas would be best
4. Take sufficient pens, pencils or any other essentials needed for that specific exam. Try to use the same pens etc. as you would normally use in class as this too, can be a small psychological booster – just use new pens for “spares”
5. Take a wristwatch or small traveller’s clock – make sure any alarms / hourly chimes are disabled
6. Breathe and relax!


Before the exam

1. Make your way slowly to your position and sit yourself comfortably
2. Make sure you listen very carefully to instructions that are given or any announcements that are made. If anything is unclear, ask questions before you start as this may save you a great deal of time later
3. Set out your pens, pencils etc. and set up your clock or wristwatch so that you can see it just by looking up and not having to move anything out of the way
4. Make sure that you have everything necessary: question paper, answer papers, additional sheets etc. Ask the invigilator if something appears to be missing


The exam itself

1. Read the paper and all the instructions carefully. Check that you know exactly how many questions you have to answer and carefully note any constraints such as “Answer 1 question from each section” or “Answer 2 questions from Section A and 1 question from Section B”
2. “Speed Read” the paper to get an idea of what questions are in it but then…
Read each question carefully and thoroughly and make sure you understand what it is asking. Read all parts of the question before deciding whether or not to answer it.
Try to work out how much time you will need to answer each question, but allow some time for reading / checking at the end of the time.
3. Try to write as neatly as you can
4. If you are doing mathematical questions always show your working if it’s required
5. Breathe and relax as much as possible. Try to think clearly and keep confident
6. In a given question, concentrate on what you ‘do know’ rather than what you may feel you don’t know. Use what you know to maximum effect, but remember to answer the question
7. Tackle the questions you feel most confident about first (it rarely matters which order you answer questions in). This will help to build your confidence and you may find yourself remembering more things.
8. Keep thinking positive and do the best you can. Just answer as much as you can.
If, after reading a question, you genuinely feel it is ambiguous, or that you’re not sure what it means or too broadly based, state this in the first part of your answer and explain briefly your reason for trying to answer a question in a particular way. The examiner will then have a better chance of empathising with your response.
9. Answer the question as best as you can. REMEMBER: You are going to do your best and that is THE most important thing.
10. Breathe and relax

More support

If you need more support, and live in one of our commissioned areas, go to Kooth where you can log-in anonymously to access self-help information, one-to-one online therapy and join moderated online forums.

To find out if we’re in your area, click here