Dealing with Exam Stress

Our Psychodynamic Therapist, Jenna, shares her tips for dealing with the exam season…

It’s coming up to the end of semester and exam time and we have seen a lot of stress and anxiety within the clinic lately for those who are studying at school or University.

Since it was Mental Health Awareness Week last week, here’s some suggestions for how to maintain your mental health whilst under the stress and pressure of exams.  Before we start, I’ve included a brief overview of how being stressed out can affect your ability to study and your exam performance.

Firstly, when you are stressed out and anxious your brain will produce more cortisol (a steroid) as a result of triggering your natural fight or flight response.  High levels of cortisol has been shown to decrease your working memory – which is the part of your memory that enables you to multitask. So basically, it helps you to be able to retain and process information as you are reading it and it helps you to be able to access and remember information whilst you’re writing.  In short, high levels of stress will have a big impact on how you study; how much you retain whilst studying; and how well you can perform in an exam. Therefore, one of the best ways to improve your study retention and exam performance is to focus on relaxing. Our go-to ways of helping with relaxation are, of course, mindfulness and meditation. Unsurprisingly, avoiding unhelpful coping strategies (such as over-consuming alcohol/drugs) is also helpful whilst trying to decrease stress and anxiety.

When studying for exams in particular, it’s useful to find out which way of learning suits you best. For some people, reading alone is enough for them to retain information. For others, reading and hand writing notes helps with information retention. Recent research has shown that hand writing notes in classes or whilst reading helps us to connect with and retain information. Even though it takes longer than typing, it will help you in the long run to retain important information.

Some people also find it helpful to print off articles or information as opposed to reading it from a computer or tablet. The backlighting from electronic devices can interfere with your brain’s ability to retain information, so be mindful of whether you’re zoning out whilst reading something from an electronic device.

Finally, some people learn best by talking and explaining a topic with other people. If you are one of these people, try linking up with someone from your class for study sessions. You can meet up with 2-3 people and discuss the topic you’re studying, debate it, ask each other questions (and even have a bit of time to moan about the fact that you have to study!). Sometimes connecting with other people who are in a similar situation when you are in a time of stress or anxiety can normalise your experience and can help increase the quality of studying.

Another contributor to exam stress is procrastination – which, for most, is central to the student experience. Regardless of the reason why you are procrastinating, doing such often results in added stress leading up to exam period, when things have built up and you have less time to complete your work. Some people work well under pressure, and relying on this can be used as a way of fuelling procrastination habits and subsequently increasing pre-exam/end of semester stress. However, if you work well under pressure you can still find a way of working well without leaving everything to the last minute!

[x_blockquote type=”center”]The key to reduced academic stress is to try something new…[/x_blockquote]

Top Tips:

  1. Start by making a list of all of your projects and exams, the dates they need to be completed by, and how long you think it will take you to do them
  2. Then, make a list of your tasks according to how much you think you will enjoy doing each of them.  List them from “most enjoyable/easiest” to “least enjoyable/most difficult”
  3. Get a small white board and draw a line down the middle. On one side, write “to do” and on the other write “done”. It’s also helpful to write a motivating quote at the bottom or top of your board.  Put it somewhere near where you work at home, or somewhere that you will walk past it frequently
  4. Pick the task you will most enjoy/the easiest, and save that one for last. Choose your second most enjoyable/easiest task and begin working on it
  5. As you complete each task, move it from the “to do’ part of your white board to your “done” part of your white board. And spend a moment giving yourself a pat on the back for finishing one of your (no doubt) many tasks
  6. If you are used to cramming everything into a 6-10 hour work/study session every day for 2 weeks before an exam or due date, then start 4 weeks before hand and break it up. Try spreading those 6-10 hours of daily work over 4-5 days but stick to doing no more than 2 hours of work every day – and plan something fun to do afterwards every day!

By leaving the easiest and most enjoyable task to the end, it will help to motivate you throughout your study/work period at the end of semester. Once you finish the hardest and least enjoyable tasks, you’ll be rewarded by breezing through the easiest and most enjoyable task.

After some time, you’ll probably find that you’re accomplishing more (with higher quality) in just 2 hours, than before when you were locking yourself away for 6-10 hours. And most importantly…you’ll finish your tasks earlier and you’ll be less stressed!

The next time an exam or end of semester approaches you’ll hopefully find that you’re less stressed and anxious thinking about it – because you’ll know that it’s all manageable.

Give it a shot… 🙂

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