Exam time stresses - a survival guide

We all need some stress - without it, we'd never bother to get out of bed in the morning. But there's a huge difference between the incentive we need to do our best and getting 'stressed out', which means we don't function efficiently.


Exam stress? I've been there, seen that and got the T-shirt - it may be a long time ago for me, but watching my kids go through it is bringing it back all too vividly. In fact, just seeing the occasional look of raw terror on their faces is enough to make me feel ill.

We all need some stress - without it, we'd never bother to get out of bed in the morning. But there's a huge difference between the incentive we need to do our best and getting 'stressed out', which means we don't function efficiently. Time and time again, studies looking at causes of stress have basically narrowed them down to a single major theme - lack of control. Think Chinese water torture - it doesn't harm you physically, but being totally helpless over that dripping water has been widely recognised as driving people mad.

So the key to surviving the stress of exams is to take control as much as you can - and to be in the best physical shape to cope with the elements you can't control.

STRESS BEATERS: spelling it out!

S et priorities - taking too long on revision for the first exam is a common mistake. Set aside the day before an exam for last-minute work, but build in time for other exams where you don't have such a big gap after your last one. The work you do won't be wasted - it'll all be there in the back of your mind when you come back to last-minute revision on the last day. A wall chart of the whole revision and exam period will help give you a picture of how revision time stacks up.

T ime management. Set aside blocks of time (say, 15 minutes every couple of hours) for relaxation when you are revising, and do the bulk of your work when you're most productive. Work out if you're a lark or an owl and weight your work timetable appropriately.

R elaxation time should be built in to your timetable. It's every bit as important as the work, because it allows you to recharge your batteries. I have one child who loves cooking and uses the time to cook three meals a day from fresh ingredients as their down time; and another who would much rather have a ready meal and spend their downtime on Facebook.

E ating healthily can go a huge way to putting you in the best physical shape to do well. Slow-burn carbohydrates and plenty of fruit and veg will help you concentrate. Keeping your non-alcoholic fluid intake up will help concentration and reduce the risk of headaches.

S tay clear of stimulants (or depressants). It may be tempting to unwind with alcohol, or use drugs or huge amounts of caffeine to keep you concentrating, but at best they'll dull your concentration levels when you most need it and at worst they could make you more prone to cracking up.

S witch it off. When I was a girl, being sent to your room was a punishment because there was nothing to do. Today, there are endless online distractions, and it's really important to switch them off when you're studying. Apart from eating into your revision time, making you more prone to last-minute panic when you haven't done enough, too much time hearing from other people who are panicking (or celebrating because they've finished their exams!) can increase your stress levels. If possible, switch off the internet while you're revising, or at least mute your computer so you can't hear updates coming in.

B e prepared. It's (almost!) never too late to set a revision timetable.

E stimate how long tasks will take - but remember that most of us hugely underestimate how long things will take, so you may want to take your estimated time and double it! You may find it easier to work productively if you're somewhere you won't be disturbed - say, in the library.

A BC - write down a list of what you need to do, and mark them with priorities A, B and C. A is for things you have to do; B for things you should do and C for things you could do.

T o do lists - a master list can be really useful - keep it to hand to jot down notes of things you need to do as you go along.

E xercise may be the last thing on your mind at the moment, but it's a great way to unwind and amazingly, can counter tiredness as well as stress. Exercise releases endorphins, the body's natural 'feelgood' hormones.

R est well. Most of us find it harder to sleep when we're under stress, but you won't concentrate as well if you're overtired. Getting drunk or staying up all night playing computer games is not the solution. Keep your bedroom quiet and dark (with computers and LED lights turned off) and avoid doing anything too stimulating before bed. Marathon last minute revision sessions will leave you tired and low in concentration when the exam comes.

S tay calm! If you're really struggling, speak to your parent or tutor.

Dr Sarah is unable to provide medical advice or respond directly to questions concerning your health. If you have health concerns we recommend contacting your GP.