My article for RobinAge (a children’s newspaper) on Managing stress during exams. All the best kids prepping for the boards and all the best to their parents too! Stay well.
Some people have the idea that stress is something that only affects people once they hit a certain age – and that until you reach that age, life is always fun and easy. But when you’ve got a huge test to study for, worries about the fight you had with your mom or dad, someone blocking you on Instagram, and thinking of college applications, it can add up to stress. One specific type of stress that almost every student faces is exam stress.
Reactions to Exam Stress: One way to know whether you are taking too much stress is when your normal functioning at tasks become lessened. A drop of a quarter of your normal efficiency is indicative of excessive exam stress.
Physical Symptoms: Sleeping too little, loss of appetite, panic, dizziness, muscular tension, hyperventilation, nausea.
Thinking: Preoccupation with exams even though the exams may be a while away. Some of the thoughts are uncomfortable and may contain self-critical ideas. You may see the future as bleak with you as a loser – not getting your degree or being inferior to others. You might find it difficult to concentrate due to these thoughts.
Feelings: Your mood appears slightly down or anxious. There may be feelings of terror. You may experience some hopelessness and despair.
Images: These usually take the form of unpleasant scenes or flashbacks from previous exams. They can be very vivid. There may be nightmares.
Avoidance: You may find yourself blocking out the subject of exams, avoiding going near the exam halls, not looking at old exam papers, leaving lectures or “tuning out” when someone speaks of studying or exams. You may find yourself withdrawing, unable to talk to people as much as usual. You may find yourself frightened of what people may say about exams.
How to get through exams with less stress:
- Get help: ask a teacher or tutor about how to revise, and skills for how to write the exam paper. Consider revising with friends – splitting responsibility for obtaining photocopies and revision notes can save a lot of time.
- Take short rests: If your mind is tired, it will not retain information. Remember that most people can only concentrate fully for about 45 minutes at a time.
- Plan your work: Don’t try to revise for too long in one day, especially as exams draw nearer, and try to avoid revising late at night. Work on your most difficult subjects during your ‘peak’ periods, for some this is usually between 10 am and 12 noon, and 3 pm and 4.30 pm. It’s never too late to make a revision plan or timetable, and doing so will help you prioritise and feel more in control.
- Stay healthy: Get enough sleep, eat sensibly. If you are studying in the evening, don’t go straight to bed afterwards. Your mind will still be ‘going round and round’ – thinking too much. Do something else, maybe walk or get exercise. Tiredness promotes anxiety, so sleep well. Avoid caffeine, which in large doses can cause tension and anxiety. Drink plenty of water. You need exercise to work well. Walk, run, play sport – whatever you enjoy.
Writing the exam sensibly:
- Keep Perspective: When you are faced with a very stressful situation, it helps to remove yourself from it mentally and think about it as an outsider. For example, if you are very stressed out about a test you’re taking, make yourself step back from it for a minute. Is the test as hard as you thought it might be? If you don’t do well, what is the worst that will happen? Finally, if one of your friends was really stressed out about a test, what would you suggest they do?
- Be practical: If it upsets you to talk to your friends about an exam when it is finished, don’t do it! Avoid people who are obviously panicking. Don’t do a post-mortem on each exam, as this can also increase your anxiety about later papers.
- Get a normal night’s sleep the night before an exam. Pulling last minute all-nighters is anxiety producing and your body may not be rested enough to fight the onset of panic.
- Eat a good breakfast or lunch before the test. Avoid simple carbohydrates (sugar products) and fats- they lower your blood sugar level and produce symptoms such as dizziness, headaches, light-headedness, lack of concentration and anxiety. Complex carbohydrates (whole grains) and proteins can help stabilize your blood sugar chemistry.
- Stop studying an hour before the test. You probably will not learn anything more of use in one hour Seeing something you don’t know at the last minute could set off anxiety. Spend the last hour relaxing, doing something unrelated to the exam.
- During stressful situations, breathing becomes short and rapid. Deep breathing not only enriches the body’s supply of oxygen, but also allows the mind an opportunity to forget about worries (even if only for a few minutes).
- Plan ahead: Practice taking the test. Go to the room where it will be held and familiarize yourself with the surroundings. Plan to bring enough stationery, a calculator (and battery), and a watch, if appropriate. By planning ahead, you may be able to alleviate a greater part of your test anxiety.
- Read the entire test through before starting. Then go back and prioritize the questions according to their importance to you and the grade.
The way we deal with stress determines to a great extent the kind of lives we lead. Stressful situations can shatter us or make us stronger. Feeling helpless in the face of stress is the real enemy, not the stress itself. Keep a realistic estimate of the stress and soon you will feel empowered instead of helpless!