10 ways to avoid exam stress

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By Eoin Meegan

In a recent report by the Economic and Social Research Institute, following extensive consultation with students, teachers and parents across forty post-primary schools nationwide, it was found that stress in the exams (including mocks) was having a detrimental impact on students’ mental health.

With the mocks just around the corner, starting on February 9th to be precise, those stress levels have already begun to escalate.

Some students reported suffering sleep deprivation, stress, worry and anxiety. Also, feelings of burn-out and concern that they were forced to learn stuff by rote and this killed off all creativity.

Other students said if they had fewer subjects and greater choice they would feel less stress. They wished to see a move away from so much emphasis on exams to one of assessment, which is the case in the junior cycle.

A little stress can be a good thing because it releases adrenaline and good chemicals that get the body and brain motivated. However, the problem arises when we get too much stress. Then the body gets flooded with these chemicals and leads to feelings of extreme anxiety. Unfortunately, people are tempted to counteract these with caffeine pills and other stimulants which only make matters worse, leading to feelings of loss of control and being physically unwell.

It would be nice if young people were taught techniques in school that could help them manage stress, such as simple body awareness and breathing exercises. These can be taught even at the primary level. Recently NewsFour reported on the alarming rise in mental illness and suicide in teens, which can present at primary level. We need to tackle stress and mental illness before it gets out of hand.

If you’re preparing for the mocks here are ten tips to help you cope with stress:

1. Remember the exams you are preparing for don’t define you for the rest of your life. Make your academic studies part of your life, not your life part of it. Keep everything in perspective.

2. Take time in nature. There is therapeutic agency in nature that can’t be fully explained be it a walk through a park, or a stroll by the sea. As you walk in nature notice the colours, the vibrancy. If you feel drawn to a particular tree sit under it for a while. Don’t think of anything, just let the world flow through you. Notice something you haven’t seen before. Let it absorb you. Then when you return to your study you will feel refreshed and renewed.

3. Listen to music. I know young people do this and there’s nothing wrong with listening to your favourite singers, but maybe try something different. Classical music is said to have a soothing and therapeutic effect on the brain. Some people play it softly in the background while studying. Listening to music we are not familiar with is said to stimulate and harmonise the two hemispheres of the brain, and facilitates recall.

4. Make sure you get physical exercise. Go for a run or do some stretching or enjoy a quick game of football with your mates. When we’re feeling good physically the mind feels calmer. And remember to drink plenty of water.

5. Remember to eat well. You are allowed treats when preparing for exams, but don’t over-do the sugary types. Drink plenty of warm drinks, especially this time of year, hot chocolate (get your mum to make it!) or herbal teas. Also, keep hydrated. If we don’t have a healthy body we can’t have a healthy mind.

6. Enjoy the company of pets, if you’re lucky enough to have one. Pets are a great source of emotional support.

7. Get plenty of sleep. This one cannot be stressed too much. When we’re studying we tend to stay up late thinking we can cram more in that way. I know I made this mistake. But if you’re tired chances are the information’s not going in. Get to bed before eleven each night and aim for a good eight hours’ sleep. So much research has been done into the recuperative powers of sleep that it could fill the whole paper. It restores the chemical imbalances that we spoke about earlier.

8. Avoid TV and social media last thing before going to bed. Don’t sleep with your mobile device by your bedside, a habit you most likely picked up from adults. When you sit down to study don’t bring your mobile phone with you and switch off all social media.

9. Set aside a specific time every day when you are going to study and stick to this. Research has shown that routine can instil discipline and curtail those feelings of being out of control. It is recommended that a study period of forty minutes followed by a break is best. It’s better to do this several times a day than try and do it all in one block. Also, try and have your own room or special space for studying where you won’t be disturbed. Make sure it’s well ventilated.

10. Remember to breathe. This seems obvious but when we’re fearful or stressed-out our breathing becomes shallow and forced. Do this very simple exercise: Close your eyes and take a deep breath into your stomach. Count to four as you breathe in, then hold it on a count of four, then slowly release again as you count to four.

As you breathe in, feel your lungs filling up and the air going right down into your belly. Similarly, release it from the belly, feeling it leave your body like air slowly exiting a balloon. You can do it sitting in a chair while you’re studying. The breath keeps us balanced and restores good chemicals in the brain that worrying and stress will block.

Treat the mocks as a kind of dress rehearsal to the real thing in June, which is exactly what they are. See them as a trial run. The amount of stress you’re feeling now is a good gauge as to how you may feel in June. And best of luck.