Coping with exam stress

When you are stressed and overwhelmed, seemingly straightforward tasks – like exam revision – can feel so much harder than they should. People cope with stress in different ways – some of these coping mechanisms are healthy, while others are unhealthy and unproductive. Learning to manage your stress, and to use coping mechanisms that will channel those feelings into productive feelings is an important life skill.

Believe it or not, a little bit of stress is a good thing. It keeps us focused and engaged. It also usually shows that we understand the value in something or how important it is. This is why people often feel stressed during exams.

Too much stress, however, can have the opposite effect and leave us feeling overwhelmed. This, in turn, leads to negative behaviours or unhealthy coping mechanisms, which only worsen the situation and create a vicious cycle.

Let’s look at some unhealthy ways of coping with stress:

  • Substance abuse
  • Lashing out at others in anger or frustration
  • Overeating or under-eating
  • Emotional withdrawal from friends and family
  • Procrastination
  • Excessive exercising

When people feel stressed, they are often unable to concentrate on one task at a time. Stress, or feeling overwhelmed, can also lead to insomnia, or problems getting to asleep (or staying asleep). If you’ve ever felt like your mind is racing and you simply cannot calm down, then you are probably suffering from stress.

Learning to deal with stress positively means that you will be able to focus better, feel more relaxed and stay healthy. You will be able to cope with the pressures and demands of exam revision without feeling overwhelmed.

Here are some good ways to cope with stress:

  1. Eat well

A diet that is too high in sugar or unhealthy fat will put additional strain on your body. It’s important to eat a balanced diet, as this will keep your body and brain healthy and in tip-top condition.

  1. Get enough (quality) sleep

Getting enough sleep is essential and will ensure that your brain is rested and able to cope with the demands of exam revision. Teenagers need at least 8 hours of sleep per day, and this sleep should be quality sleep. In order to achieve a really restful night’s sleep, try the following tips:

  • Have a good sleep routine, and stick to it. This will alert your body to the fact that it needs to start shutting down for the day.
  • No electronics before bedtime – read a book instead. Try charging your phone in another room or, at least, putting it on charge somewhere you can’t reach it. Either switch it off, or put it on Night Mode so that it doesn’t beep or light up during the night.
  • Write a to-do list before you get into bed. If you find that your mind races the minute your light is switched off, then try writing a to-do list before you go to bed. This takes the pressure of you because you know that you will deal with everything you need to do in the morning. You can also write in a journal – putting your thoughts on paper can be useful for helping your brain to switch off.
  • Don’t eat a heavy meal or drink too many fluids just before bedtime.
  • Cut out caffeine. This includes chocolate and hot chocolate. Sorry.
  1. Stay organised

It is easy to feel overwhelmed when you haven’t got a plan. Make time to put together a comprehensive study timetable. When you feel like you have some control over the situation, you will probably find that you are a little less stressed.

  1. Make time for yourself

Make time in your daily schedule to exercise, relax and spend time with friends and family. Your exam revision is your top priority right now, but that doesn’t mean that you should only study. It’s important for your overall well being to look after yourself and to connect regularly with people who love and support you.

TIP: It may be helpful to disconnect from social media during exam time. The added pressures of social media can add to your stress levels. Rather uninstall the apps for a short period so that you are able to focus on your studies and connecting with people in real life.

  1. Understand that it’s temporary

It’s important for you to remember that this is not going to last forever. Often, when we are in the middle of exam revision, we feel like we cannot see an end to it all. There is one! Hang up a calendar with the day of your last exam circled in red, cross out each day until you get to it – knowing that it’s coming will help you feel less hopeless.

Lastly, if you are feeling overwhelmed or hopeless for a long period of time and if you are having depressive and suicidal thoughts, talk to your parents, teacher, principal, religious or community leader, or contact an organisation like ChildLine. You are not alone.