Whether it is the junior cert, the leaving cert, or college exams: At a certain point, students have to prove their knowledge. For many, this turns into exam stress or even anxiety. The fear of failure is great. Lack of time, external expectations and your own demands increase the anxiety. Here you can find out what symptoms you may experience, how the stress can affect you and how you can cope with exam stress and anxiety.
How does exam stress show itself? Depending on your own personality, exam stress can manifest itself in various ways. The most noticeable symptom for many is nervousness and tension. Cold hands, sweating, palpitations and gastrointestinal problems are all very common. Then there are thoughts: What if I don’t pass the exam? The fear of possible negative consequences can lead to sleep disturbances and even low moods but you can counteract the stress of exams.
How to get through the exams?
1. Make a plan
Good exam preparation is vital, so you could create a long-term study plan. First, collect all the topics and areas that you need to learn. Then determine how much time you have before the exam and distribute the learning material as evenly as possible over the weeks. This way, you can approach things in a structured manner.
2. What is your study style?
For difficult topics, it makes sense to know your own learning style. Some topics can be better understood through visual or auditory learning tools and ways. Then there is the learning environment: If you have too many distractions at home, you might be better off in the library. Others are drawn to the café or to the fresh air to study. Your stress level before exams will decrease if you study in the way that is best for you.
3. Lower your expectations
Exam stress is largely caused by high expectations – partly your own, partly those placed on you from outside. Lower those expectations. If you go into an exam with a more realistic attitude, the exam stress will also noticeably decrease immediately. Of course you want to pass and get good grades. But remember, the world doesn’t end if you don’t get top marks or fail an exam.
4. Seek support
Every student has subjects they fear more than others. This increases the stress of exams. You don’t have to face the problem alone. Get support before the exams. Set up a study group and talk to fellow students who can explain things to you that you haven’t understood yet. This increases your understanding and you will feel less stressed. It’s also good to talk to others who may also be unsure.
5. Take breaks
There is no point in looking at your documents for hours without a break. After 90 minutes at the latest, concentration and receptivity begin to decline. Therefore, take regular breaks in which you can anchor what you have learned. The best way to take a break is to go for a walk in the fresh air or some other form of relaxation that is free of major distractions.
6. Comply with your usual sleep routine
Some examinees tend to study to the last minute and sacrifice their sleep. However, this will increase your exam stress and achieve the exact opposite of what you are aiming for. Maintain your sleep pattern. Your body needs rest. Information is stored in long-term memory during sleep – exactly what you need for the exam. Lack of sleep on the other hand can cause problems with concentration.
What can help to cope with the stress?
Sport is fantastic for almost everything. When you work out and get your body moving, you can clear your head. Your body will reward you with endorphins that will strengthen your immune system, which is more easily weakened by stress. Whenever possible, build exercise into your everyday life, take the stairs instead of the elevator, go for walks more often. Get moving, especially outdoors, charge up on some fresh air and sunlight. Vitamin D in sunlight helps enhance low moods. Nice side effect: The green in parks or forests have a calming effect and help you to ground yourself.
Under the stress of exams, many “forget” to breathe properly, resulting in cramps or even hyperventilation. With conscious, deep abdominal breathing (don’t forget to breathe out!) you increase the amount of oxygen in your body and your brain can work better again. The star breathing technique (4-6-8 method) is also effective. Sit or stand upright with your shoulders straight. Put your hand on your stomach and try to breathe only through your nose – if possible without your chest rising. Then do the following: Breathe in slowly and deeply for a count of four. Hold your breath for a count of six. Exhale slowly through your mouth and count to eight. Repeat five times (or more if needed).
The stress ball is simple to use and effective. Simply press the squeeze ball until the exam stress subsides. Squeezing a stress ball before an exam has shown to improve performance noticeably and the error rate decreased. The effect is called “attention focus”. The manual distractive motion can literally solve mental blocks .
This trick doesn’t work during the exam, but during the learning phase at home: hum or sing and the exam stress disappears in no time. Scientists assume that the vibrations have a calming effect on the body. Massage the vocal cords from the inside. This is how the larynx muscles signal to the Vagus nerve (relaxation nerve) that everything is okay. This in turn lowers blood pressure .
If the exam stress is about to overwhelm you, pause for a moment. One method for doing this, for example, is mindfulness, in which you direct your attention to the here and now. Try to be aware of your surroundings. Another method is the so-called freeze frame method. You “freeze” the moment and consciously turn your attention to something positive. This short-term distraction with a positive feeling enables you to continue working with concentration afterwards.
Even if you don’t feel like smiling, try to smile consciously to reduce your exam stress. Researchers have been able to prove that smiling without a reason has the same effect as smiling for joy: the muscles involved signal to the brain that you are smiling and in return it releases happiness hormones. This can take the fear and pressure off your mind and ultimately leads to better concentration.
Relaxation exercises such as yoga or meditation require a certain routine in order to unfold their full effect. That is why they can have a lasting effect if practiced regularly. The relaxing benefits help you to mentally get away from the stress trigger. Instead, you are focusing on your body and the movements required. All this is for relaxation and leads to inner peace and calm.
Probably the most important tip during the exam phase: Make sure you balance yourself. Instead of burying yourself with learning material at home, you should plan enough free time and distractions. Of course, without alcohol before the exam day. But if you completely shut down your social contacts during the study phase, you rob yourself of motivation and increase the stress of the exams.
A healthy and balanced diet plays a major role when preparing for exams. It keeps the body fit and supplies the brain with the necessary nutrients. A good breakfast is vital to start the day. Studies have shown that students who did not eat in the morning did worse on tests than those who had breakfast. With certain foods, the so-called brain food, you can even increase your mental performance. Due to the many vitamins and minerals it contains, oats, for example, ensure an increased performance of the brain. Fruits such as strawberries or blueberries stimulate the transmission of information between the nerves and the brain and thus lead to better memory performance.
The months, weeks, and days leading up to exams are not only stressful for students but often for their parents too. Turn2Me is launching a new online support group, the ‘Exam Stress Support Group’ on Thursday’s at 6pm. This group offers students and parents an anonymous, confidential and safe space to share their feelings around exam stress and anxiety. They can find ways of managing stress and most importantly how to look after themselves so they can stay focused but also healthy at the same time. It is an opportunity for parents to discuss and find out how they can best support their child and cope with the stress themselves.