This page provides tips and information to help you beat exam stress.
During times of stress we tend to:
- Mind Read: You might make assumptions about others’ beliefs without having any real evidence to support them.
- Catastrophise: People commonly ‘catastrophise’ when they are anxious, which basically means that they often blow things out of proportions.
- Focus On Negatives: Anxious people often have a tendency to focus on negatives which keeps their anxiety going.
- Make ‘Should’ Statements: People often imagine how they would like things to be or how they ‘should be’ rather than accepting how things really are.
- Over Generalise: Based on one isolated incident, you assume that all others will follow a similar pattern in the future.
- Make ‘What If’ Statements: Have you ever wondered “what if…?” when something bad happens?
- Label: You attach negative labels to yourself.
Challenging unhelpful thoughts
You can challenge your unhelpful thoughts by asking these questions:
- Is there any evidence that contradicts this thought?
- What would you say to a friend who had this thought in a similar situation?
- What are the costs and benefits of thinking in this way?
- How will you feel about this in 6 months time?
- Is there another way of looking at this situation?
Once you have asked yourself these questions, you should read through your answers. Try to come up with a more balanced or rational view. For example: “Worrying about failing is doing me no good. I’ve always done well before so I should be fine, especially since I’ve prepared properly.”
Follow the steps below to work through and overcome the problem.
- Identify your problem: The first thing to ask yourself is “what is the problem?”. Try to be as specific as possible.
- Come up with possible solutions: Try to list every way you can think to overcome your problem. Don’t worry about how unrealistic an idea seems. Write down anything and everything. The best solutions are likely to be the ones you think of yourself. This is because nobody really knows your situation as well as you do.
- Choose a solution
- Break down your solution: To help you carry out your chosen solution, it can be useful to break it down into smaller steps. This can make it easier and more manageable to follow through.
- Try out your solution and review the outcome
It is important to make time to relax and do activities that are enjoyable. This can help to reduce your anxiety levels by calming the body and mind. It can also help you to sleep. Without taking the time to unwind, it is easy to feel overwhelmed and stressed. Try to find time to relax every day and include relaxation in your revision timetable.
- Do some exercise (e.g. swim, cycle)
- Read a book
- Watch your favourite TV show
- Go to the cinema
- Do something creative (e.g. draw, paint)
- Visit a friend or family member
- Have a bath
- Meditation / breathing exercises (see the sound files in the resources area below)
Look after yourself
Taking steps towards a healthy lifestyle can have a real impact on our stress levels.
- Relationships / Social Network: Good relationships and support from friends and family can really help us cope better. It can also mean that we overcome problems more quickly and for longer. It can be really helpful to talk through difficulties with friends. You could discuss ways of coping, and some of them might have been through something similar.
- Healthy Eating: What you eat and drink can have a significant impact on both your mood, sleep and physical health.
- Exercise: Keeping fit and active can have an impact on your mood.
- Routine: Having a consistent routine can help give structure to your life. Patterns can be set as we react the same way or do the same thing in certain situations.
- Surroundings: Consider the noise, temperature and light you have to deal with. The comfort and tidiness of your surroundings can have an impact on your mood.
Diet and Healthy Eating
Make sure you eat
- Even if you normally skip breakfast or avoid eating when you are nervous, you should still make the time to eat.
- If you really cannot stomach food, then try having a protein shake or smoothie.
- Very simply, your brain needs the energy from food to work efficiently. You need to keep your mental focus on your exam.
- Eat enough to feel satisfied but not so much as to feel full. If you eat a big breakfast or lunch before an exam, you will feel drowsy and heavy.
Eat brain-boosting food
- This includes protein-rich foods which can lead to greater mental alertness.
- Healthy food choices on exam day include eggs, nuts, yogurt, and cottage cheese.
- Good breakfast combinations might be whole-grain cereal with low-fat milk, eggs and toast with jam, porridge, oatmeal, or sugar-free muesli.
- Other dietary choices considered to be brain foods are fish, walnuts, blueberries, sunflower seeds, flaxseed, dried fruits, figs, and prunes.
Avoid brain-blocking food
- On exam day, stay away from foods made of white flour, such as cookies, cakes, and muffins, which require added time and energy to digest.
- When eaten alone, carbohydrates make you feel more relaxed than alert. So carbs are a good option for the day before the exam, but not on the actual exam day.
- In addition, carbs such as rice or potatoes, eaten in large quantities, can make you feel heavy and sleepy.
- Avoid foods that are high in sugar, such as chocolates, desserts, and candies. They will send you off on sugar highs and lows – the opposite of stabilizing you during your long exam.
Drink brain-boosting beverages
- Make sure you drink enough water before and during your exam. Dehydration can make you lose your concentration, feel faint, and sap your energy.
- Don’t wait till you’re thirsty to drink a glass of water. If you wait till you’re thirsty, it means your body is already a little dehydrated.
Avoid brain-blocking beverages
- Avoid sugary sodas and colas. Avoid caffeine, as it can increase your nervousness. However, if you are accustomed to drinking coffee regularly, then have a small cup or two.
- Carry healthy snacks, such as protein bars, trail mix, energy bars, granola bars, almonds, walnuts, or fruit for such times, to keep your energy high.
- Avoid chocolates or sweet treats as the energy high could be followed by an energy crash during your exam!
- Don’t try any new foods, drinks, or supplements just before the exam, even if they come highly recommended by friends or family. You don’t know how your body responds to them and you don’t want any surprises on exam day.
Make time for sleep
- Having a consistent routine can help give structure to your life. For example, taking time to relax and unwind before bed, and getting up at the same time.
- Try to strengthen the association of your bed and bedroom with sleep by only going to bed when you feel sleepy.
- Try to get on a sleeping pattern so that your body is used to going to sleep and waking at a similar time each day.
Learn, sleep, repeat
- Learn the material in advance and then sleep on it – sleep builds memory, so make sure you get the required 7-8 hours sleep the night before to ensure your mind is alert.
- Try not to panic the night before an exam. The best way to mentally prepare is get to sleep at a reasonable hour and wake up early, rather than to stay up for that extra hour.
Watch what you eat and when
- Try to eat regular meals and stay hydrated. Avoid unhealthy food that contain a lot of fat or sugar. Also, consider what you eat and drink close to bedtime. Caffeine, fizzy drinks or a large meal can interfere with your sleep.
For more information, see the Diet and Healthy Eating tips section above.
Make your bedroom a place of rest
- Checking emails or doing some last-minute revision in bed may stop your brain associating the bedroom as a place of quiet rest.
- Electronic devices emit noise and light; both will stop you sleeping. LCD screens on phones and tablets emit light that is blue enriched. This light influences the body’s internal clock (circadian rhythm) and delays the release of the ‘sleep hormone’ melatonin. Without melatonin you can not sleep, and light will make you feel more alert.
Clear your head before bed
- Sitting and ruminating over thoughts of the day will keep the brain active, so try keeping a notebook by your bed to write thoughts down before sleep instead.
- If you can’t drop off, don’t stay in bed trying to force yourself to sleep. Instead, employ the 15-minute rule: if you can’t sleep after what feels like 15 minutes, get up, leave the bedroom, and read or relax somewhere else. Only return to the room when you feel sleepy again.
- Meditation and breathing exercises can also help. Listen to the guided ‘beditation’ sound file in the resources area, download it and play it if you can’t sleep.
Remember – one night of bad sleep won’t hurt
- Sleep is an autonomic function – you can’t force yourself to sleep, so worrying about not sleeping or the effect of not sleeping on the following day will impair sleep.
- Try not to nap, but if you need to, keep any naps to less than 30 minutes in length and don’t take them after 3pm.
- Remember, after a night of poor sleep, you are more likely to sleep the following night!
Free apps for your phone or tablet
Mindshift – mindfulness and other coping skills for anxiety
Headspace (free 10 day trial)
Smiling Minds – this can be specifically designed for your age group
Sound files for meditation
Right-click to save these sound files to your computer, or click / tap on the link to play.
Get the ‘Paying Attention’ meditation sound file
Get the ‘Thought Traffic’ meditation sound file
Get the ‘Beditation’ meditation sound file
Get the ‘Taking In The Good’ meditation sound file
‘Finger Breathing’ exercise’
- With the index finger, trace up the one finger of the other hand on the in-breath, and down the other side of that finger on the out-breath.
- Don’t alter your breath, the finger tracing should match your natural breath.
7/11 Breathing exercise
- In your head, count up to 7 as you breathe in, and then count to 11 as you breathe out. Just breathe how you normally breathe. There is no need to change your breathing in any way.
- Fit the numbers to the breath, not the other way around.
- If you have to speed up the counting in order to get to 7, or to 11 by the end of the in-breath or out breath, that’s fine.
Things to consider
- Don’t fear the symptoms of anxiety. Anxiety is a natural and healthy reaction that is not dangerous.
- Try not to escape situations you fear half-way through. Stay, and your anxiety will eventually decrease.
- Your anxiety will reduce each time you confront a feared situation. Try to confront your fears as often as possible.
- You may also find it helpful to challenge any unhelpful thoughts as you face a fear.
Important: If you think you are suffering from stress and feel you just can’t cope, please do not suffer in silence. Talk to someone and seek support. There are many people in school that are here to help.