Tips and tricks to reduce exam stress
Exam time is one of the most stressful periods of the school year. While stress may seem inevitable, it doesn’t have to stop you from being productive or acing your exams. In this post, we'll discuss how you can manage your stress levels when exam time approaches.
Schedule it in
Recognising that you will experience stress around exam time is an important first step. Scheduling stress might sound silly, but once you acknowledge that your mental wellbeing might get a little shaky in the coming weeks, you can do something about it and make sure you have extra support in place.
Scheduling in stress can be as simple as making a mental note. For example, you might say to yourself, ‘I know that week is going to be very stressful, so I won’t commit to an extra shift at work.’ You could also block out ‘stressful’ days on your calendar so you have an overview of when things are going to get challenging. If you know you have a stressful period coming up, it’s also a good idea to communicate this to your family and friends so they know not to ask too much of you in that time.
This also applies if you experience anxiety or other symptoms of mental ill health. Recognising that these symptoms may increase around times of stress is a good way to get ahead of them and start taking practical steps to look after yourself. For example, if you see a psychologist or counsellor, it can be a good idea to schedule an extra session during stressful periods, in case you find yourself needing extra support.
Once you know that a stressful period is coming up, there are a few non-negotiables you can focus on to make stress easier to manage.
Sleep sleep sleep
Getting enough sleep is very important when you’re stressed. For most students, sleep is a low priority. Maybe you’d rather stay up and study for another hour, or relax by scrolling through TikTok. Unfortunately, these things aren’t going to help your stress levels. Getting enough sleep (at least 8 hours) is critical to letting your brain rest and recharge and making sure you are alert enough to tackle an exam.
Creating a good sleep schedule will require some sacrifices, like less phone time before bed, less caffeine and going to sleep/waking up at the same time every day. While it can be tempting to sacrifice sleep to cram in some last-minute study, try to avoid this. It’s much more important to give your brain some quality RnR.
Choose the right fuel
What we eat can influence how we feel and this is especially true when it comes to feeling stressed. Eating a balanced diet can make us feel more energised and help reduce our stress levels. As a general rule, eating a diet high in fruits, vegetables, fibre and healthy fats can help us feel energised and more focused. Some foods are especially good at combating stress and can be incorporated into a balanced diet. Finally, caffeine can increase feelings of stress and anxiety, so while it may be tempting to up your coffee dosage around exam time, switching to low-caffeine alternatives will help you feel more relaxed.
Moving isn’t just good for reducing stress, it can also make you feel good and improve sleep and concentration. Moving your body doesn’t have to involve intensive exercise. It can be as simple as stretching for 5 minutes or going for a walk around the neighbourhood. Some forms of exercise, like yoga or running can be particularly helpful for reducing stress. Whatever movement you choose, try to schedule it in consistently, particularly during exam periods where you are spending lots of time at your desk.
In addition to focusing on the non-negotiables, there are a few extra things you can do that will really help you stay on top of exam time stress.
Meditating is a great way to reduce feelings of stress and can provide a nice break from your regular study routine. There are lots of different breathing and meditation techniques out there and it can be hard to know where to start. The Headspace app offers a free trial where you can try various meditation exercises, including an introduction course. You can also check out Atomi’s blog post on meditation and try to schedule these into your daily routine.
Everyone reacts differently to stress. Some people prefer to be alone, other people want to be distracted by friends or family. Whatever your personal preference, scheduling in some social time can help you feel less overwhelmed and provide a nice distraction from the intensity of exams. If you want to make this social time productive, you can create a study group or exercise with your friends. It’s also okay to use social time to completely switch off and distract yourself. But if you do want to talk about how you’re feeling, talking to your friends can be a great way to get support.
Stress is not something you have to go through by yourself. While it can be scary to reach out and ask for help, seeking support is a really good option when you’re feeling stressed, or struggling with your wellbeing. Support comes in many forms and everyone has different ways in which they prefer to get help. For you, this might look like talking to your parents about a stressful exam and asking them to help you study. Or maybe you prefer to schedule time with your friends to talk about the things that are stressing you out.
Finding a safe space to share your feelings isn’t always easy. Maybe you want to talk to someone who doesn’t know you personally or reach out to a mental health professional. If this is the case, you have a few options.
Talking to a professional
If you are struggling with stress and mental health more generally, you might want to get in touch with a psychologist. Finding a psychologist can take time and it’s best to start this before you are in the middle of a stressful period (another reason I recommend scheduling stress). You can find more info about finding a psychologist here and mental health care plans here.
If you’re already feeling stressed and organising a psychologist feels too overwhelming there are plenty of other resources available to you. These online forums allow you to remain anonymous and speak to counsellors and support workers about anything you’re struggling with:
- Beyond Blue Forums
- SANE Forum
- Headspace Online Counselling (best for 12-25 year olds)
- Reach Out Forums (best for 14-25 year olds)
If you want to talk to someone on the phone, these helplines offer a safe space to talk about any problems you’re having. They are all available 24/7, so if you’re freaking out the night before an exam this is a good place to go.
- Kids Helpline: 1800 55 1800
- Headspace: 1800 650 890
- Beyond Blue: 1300 224 636
Remember that everyone’s experience of stress is different. If you have other tricks that you know are helpful, keep practising them, and if you’re feeling social, share them with your friends. I’m sure they’d be grateful for some extra support!
This blog was written by Amira Skeggs. Amira is the founder of Kindred, a non-profit providing mental health resources for young people. Kindred's resources are free, expert-reviewed and available for young people, educators and mental health professionals. Amira has previously worked as a clinical researcher at the Brain and Mind Centre and is currently based in Cambridge England, where she researches young people's mental health.