What is exam stress?
Exam stress is a feeling of pressure that many young people feel coming up to exam time. It usually occurs during the revision period before exams and immediately before the exams themselves.
Stress is defined as an individual's response to pressure. A small amount of pressure can be useful to keep you focussed during exam time. However, for some students, when they experience too much pressure for a long period of time, it becomes stressful and exam preparation and study seems impossible.
Why do people experience exam stress?
Exam stress is normal and very common. People may experience it because:
- It is often necessary to learn and recall a large amount of information for an exam
- Exams always have an element of uncertainty about them
- You may need a particular exam result to gain entry into another course or career path
What does it feel like?
Some people feel stress more than others, regardless of how confident they are about the topic they are studying.
Symptoms of exam stress include:
- Losing touch with friends and the activities you enjoy
- Feeling extra cranky and low
- Sleeping poorly and struggling to get out of bed
- Difficulty getting motivated to start work
- Having clammy hands or feeling butterflies in your stomach
- Having a racing heart beat or feeling sick
- Feeling confused or having your mind going blank during the tests
These symptoms can interfere with how much you enjoy life, especially around exam times.
What can you do to manage exam stress?
If you're experiencing exam stress, firstly, it's important to try to remind yourself that this is only a small part of your life and won't last forever (even though it might not feel like it at the time!).
Below, we've put together a list of study, practical and relaxation ideas that young people have told us has helped them to manage exam stress. We've also included some tips on how to deal with stress on exam day!
It's never too late to set up good study and revision habits.
- Have an uncluttered space to work with ready access to any materials you need.
- Find out exactly what the test involves, are there past test papers you can look at to help you understand what to expect?
- Ask your teacher if you are unsure of what to expect or what will be tested.
- Learn to make ‘mind maps’ and use them to collect ideas and summarise thoughts, use bright colours to help remember important links:
- Make a clear plan of what you want to cover in each study period. Break it down into small tasks and work on one task at a time.
- Take regular short breaks of about 5 minutes to have a drink or something to eat.
- Ask for help sometimes. It may be useful to have someone hear you summarise points or to practise an oral presentation.
Practical ideas to help with study
- Stick to a routine of going to bed at a reasonable time, eating regularly and still making time to have fun and exercise.
- Cut back on coffee or any other stimulants you may use as these can increase your agitation; drink lots of water instead.
- When you eat, relax and allow yourself time rather than carrying on with work.
- Fresh fruit, vegies, cereals, grains, nuts and protein are all good for the brain and blood sugar levels. Eat as you become really hungry because it keeps blood sugar and hydration levels steady. Avoid junk food if possible because it will bring a sudden sugar high and then fall away quickly leaving you feeling depleted.
- Give yourself mini rewards once you achieve your study goals, such as watching an episode of Glee or going for a run.
Relaxation ideas to help with study
- Go out for a walk or run or do some other exercise that you enjoy.
- Put on some gentle music, lie down, close your eyes and breathe deeply while visualising a calming scene such as a deserted beach.
- Give yourself enough time to relax before you go to sleep. Reading a book or chatting to a friend for a while may help you unwind.
- Visualise success as this can really help with self confidence.
Ideas for exam day
- Work out and organise what you need to take with you into your exam the night before.
- If you feel yourself getting anxious just before your exam then spend some time focussing on your breathing. Practise beforehand (it could be as you lie down in bed) so that you learn how to slow down your breathing. Breathe in to a count of three and then breathe out to a count of three. Repeat this steadily for a few minutes.
- On exam day, keep away from other people who may be feeling anxious or who may say unhelpful comments that make you feel more anxious.
- When you first sit down to do your exam, take time to slow your breathing and relax.
- Read through the exam paper carefully. Underline key words and instructions. Work out how long you have for each question or section
- Watch out for the wording of questions - make sure that you answer what is being asked
- Work on the questions that you find easiest first
- Aim to have time to re-read answers through and make any changes that are necessary.
Remember when you finish your exam - take time out to relax a bit before you start preparing for the next exam - go for a run or have a chat with a friend!
Who else can help?
- Kids Helpline 24 hours a day, 7 hours a week 1800 55 1800
- Your parents, a trusted adult, a school counsellor
Some helpful links
- Imperial college - study hints
- Reachout website - Exam Time - hints for effective studying
- The University of Western Australia: Student Services - Managing Study Stress
- Mindmaps and brainstorming. Retrieved on September 3rd 2009.
- Relaxation Techniques for Stress Relief - Relaxation Exercises to Reduce Stress, Anxiety, and Depression (modified 2008) Retrieved September 21st 2009.
Published: 5 October 2009
Updated: 18 July 2011