Every student will feel pressure at some point during their degree and there’s nothing like stress before exams to really make you feel that pressure.
Pressure is necessary. It can be the motivation that we need to do things we don’t want to do. It’s the reason I only ever clear out the footwell of the car when I know I’m giving someone a lift; a bit of healthy pressure is the reason I produce my most beautiful work when I know my big boss is going to see it; and the pressure of a deadline is the reason I’m writing this now when I really want to be watching Game of Thrones.
At the right level, pressure helps you to thrive. It pushes you to succeed, it focuses the mind, it makes your heart beat faster and your muscles become stronger. But when that pressure becomes too much, those feelings turn to stress. Stress is an unhealthy amount of pressure, and it’s important to make sure we have the tools and capability to stop it in its tracks.
As exam season draws closer, it’s important to recognise where pressure stops and stress starts, and how you can deal with that in the most effective way. Stress before exams is incredibly common, with 60% of 18-24 year olds admitting that they feel stress related to the pressure to succeed. It doesn’t matter if you’ve been a Grade A student all year, if you’ve had your colour-coded revision timetable down for months, or if you have the most beautiful alphabetised notes you’ve ever seen – stress may well creep up on you. So now is the time to develop some tools and techniques to deal with that stress in the run up to and throughout the exam period.
Stress before exams: What to do in the run up to your exam
To try and prevent stress before exams, it’s time to take advice from all those well-meaning aunties and optimise your diet, your sleep and your exercise.
Try to keep alcohol, sugar and caffeine to a minimum, and enjoy some slow-release carbs to keep those energy levels up.
Whilst it’s tempting to try and cram in as much revision as you can, make sure that you are getting at least 8 hours sleep per night. Try not to study or use your smartphone in bed if you can help it – these activities can stop your brain perceiving bed as a place of rest, making it more difficult to fall into a deep sleep.
Don’t become a revision hermit
If you’re feeling stress before your exams, you may try to counteract it by pushing back on social engagements in order to study. Make sure you maintain a balance! Sustaining some social support is vital for good mental health – your friends are there to help you and it is important you talk to others if you feel stress is getting on top of you. If you have friends taking the same course as you, why not revise together?
Reframe stress to focus
By knowing that stress before an exam is simply too much pressure at once, you are able to rationalise and reframe the feelings that you have and take back control. Acknowledge the positive reasons your body feels like this – it is readying itself to tackle an important challenge! Rationalise exactly what it is your body is reacting to – is it a specific topic or question style? Use this to focus your revision and energy. Try to recognise when negative thoughts are creeping in, and put a positive spin on things. Instead of feeling stress because your end of year exam is round the corner, think about how much more knowledge you have now than just a few months ago.
How to deal with stress during the exam:
Well done, you’ve made it this far! Remember your reframing technique. – This exam is a good thing, an opportunity for you to demonstrate all your amazing knowledge and skills. Whilst you’re sat waiting for the exam to start, it is natural to feel your heart racing and the stress creeping in, so think about your breathing technique.
The Square Breathing Technique is designed to help you refocus your mind on your breathing, calming your stress responses.
Start by breathing in for four counts…
Then hold your breath for four counts…
Breathe out for four counts…
And hold for four counts…
Repeat a number of times until you feel your heart rate start to reduce.
If panic does set- in during the exam, take a little time out to pace yourself before you continue. Stop, take 6 deep breaths, have a drink of water and then carry on. By breaking the cycle of thinking that you were in, you will feel more relaxed and able to approach the issue in a different way.
Finally, don’t forget all the tools you already have in your back pocket! When stress appears, think again about how you can rationalise or reframe it. Remember, stress before exams is just a little too much pressure, and you have the power to dial it back down.