The jacarandas are in full bloom, which means exams are upon us. For many, it’s a time of extreme stress; unsurprisingly, since exams are by nature intimidating yet they hold the key to unlocking opportunities.
The symptoms of exam stress are fairly well known and include feeling low, moody or overwhelmed. Physical symptoms could be feeling tense, clammy hands, butterflies in the stomach, muscle spasms, headaches, a racing heartbeat or nausea. They may also find themselves biting their nails or grinding their teeth, losing their appetite or overeating, and losing touch with friends.
Then, of course, there’s everybody’s worst nightmare: your mind goes blank when you look at the exam paper.
Good advice is to remember that two-thirds of young people experience levels of exam stress high enough to be “worrying”.
But, as Dr Chido Siame, Clinical Care Lead at Kena Health, argues, stress should be seen as a helpful response to help increase our performance when faced with a challenge. It can even increase the flow of oxygen to the brain, which has to help.
Researchers have concluded that the way to make stress productive if to develop the right mindset about it—to acknowledge its performance-enhancing qualities. In another study, students who saw stress as an opportunity for self-growth performed better and reported less emotional exhaustion.
Dr Siame offers some recommendations to help you change your mindset about exam stress:
Get your mind under control. Tell yourself that the feelings of discomfort are signs that your body is primed to compete. Coach yourself to see the exam not as a threat but as a challenge that your body is ready to overcome. Don’t try to ignore the emotions; accept them as an indication that the exam is important and you need to harness mental and physical resources to crack it.
Do the preparation. One of the best ways to turn stress to your advantage is to be sure you are doing what is needed to win. First, that means developing a varied and effective programme of study—a huge contributor to stress is the nagging feeling one isn’t adequately prepared. If you’re prepared, your stress will have something positive to work with.
Take action to create a supportive study environment as best you can. Putting together a study timetable is a great technique to ensure you are (and feel you are) in control of the situation.
Look after your body and mind. Burnout is always an issue when preparing for a challenge. Ensure your body is getting plenty of healthy food, adequate water and maybe even some vitamin supplements. Don’t neglect to exercise every day—the old saying “A healthy mind in a healthy body” is more than just words! Many people find meditation or other techniques like deep breathing or progressive muscle relaxation helpful.
Be kind to yourself. Telling yourself that you can do it will build confidence. rather than criticise yourself, encourage yourself.
Research tips on how to keep calm under stress. There’s always a chance that you will experience a moment of panic in the exam itself, no matter how hard you have prepared. Gather tips from friends or the Internet on ways to restore your equanimity. Part of this will include having a strategy to organise yourself in the exam with the right implements and a timetable for each question.
Lean on family and friends. Maintaining a healthy social and familial life during the intense study period is important for keeping you balanced.
“Take all these tips into consideration and then put them into a personalised exam plan that works for you—and good luck!” concludes Dr Siame.
Don’t be afraid to seek mental health support for anxiety. Mental health professionals can help you identify anxiety and stress triggers and help with coping mechanics to navigate this challenging period. There are many accessible and convenient counselling platforms, such as the Kena Health App, that can offer counselling 7 days a week from the comfort of your smartphone.