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Exam stress is normal but if it gives rise to anxiety it can interfere with your performance
Exams are stressful times for many people and it is easy to feel overwhelmed. Our mental wellbeing advisor, Marianna Kilburn is on hand to provide information on exam stress, as well as some helpful tips to reduce the severity of this kind of stress.
An introduction to exam stress
Exam stress occurs when you feel an increased sense of panic or anxiety in the days, weeks or months before, during or after an assessment or test of some sort.
This may be a school examination, coursework or even a test of your skills at a hobby such as a music exam. Exam stress is most frequently short-lived – as soon as it is finished and you realise that you are free from studying for a few months, your stress levels usually diminish.
What are the effects of exam stress?
While you are feeling stressed, your brain is not in its best state to accumulate information. This can lead to a vicious cycle – the more you stress, the less work you do, the more you panic about stressing and not working and the greater the feeling of panic becomes, resulting in even less work being done – and so it goes on.
Experiencing panic or stress during an exam can make you forget the information you learned. This is less likely to happen if you have put in the hours and prepared well, although sometimes over-preparing can also lead to problems.
The moments after an exam spent discussing answers with friends can prove equally worrying, especially if your answers do not correspond with anyone else’s. It is important to remember that, at this stage, nothing can be done to improve the situation and it is best to put it out of your mind and simply carry on.
Exam stress can be unpleasant, but is important as it helps you perform better. If you do not experience stress when these tests of your ability come about, it is unlikely you will care about your subject or be motivated to do well.
When under stress, people can find that they are able to go the extra mile and pull from the backs of their minds answers to questions they did not realise they had ever learnt. So, exam stress can be helpful – but only if you turn all your stress into positive energy.
Symptoms of exam stress
Exam stress can manifest itself in different ways depending on the individual and the type of exam they are preparing for. The most common symptoms include:
- A feeling of despair, anxiety or worry
- A feeling that you will never be able to get through enough work or preparation before the exam
- An inability to concentrate or to think clearly
- An inability to sleep because your mind is racing
- An inability to relax because you feel guilty that you are not working
- Migraines or headaches
- Prolonged tiredness
- Increased heart rate or a feeling of panic, perhaps even leading to a panic attack.
Exams can sometimes seem like a hopeless or pointless endeavour. But for most of us, exams do have a purpose and there are a number of coping strategies which can be used to diminish the stress to an appropriate level.
First of all, it is important to remember that everyone has a different way of learning – what works for your flatmate may not work at all for you. For example, some learn well in study groups, others work best by making their notes colourful, and yet others find that doing lots of practice papers is the most helpful. Understanding the way your brain works and learns will give you a more productive and effective revision time.
It is good to have an overall plan for your study time. This will allow you to manage your time effectively and make sure that you cover all the topics you are meant to. However, avoid setting unrealistic goals as not achieving these will leave you disheartened and more stressed.
Make sure you look after yourself during your exam period. Eating junk food and relying on stimulants to keep you awake will not help your brain perform at its peak. Taking a little exercise each day will not only give your body a break from studying but give your grey matter time to digest the information you have crammed in. You will also be more likely to concentrate better when you return to your books.
Make sure you sleep well as this will make your brain (and body) more alert and perceptive when revising.
Bear in mind that the exam period is short and you will soon be free from the stress and worry of assessment. Spend a little time each day thinking of all the things you are looking forward to doing once you are free from exams – though don’t daydream for hours about this!
Treatment of exam stress
Some people find that exam stress can be so overwhelming that performance during the revision period as well as in the exam is reduced. For them, remedies to calm their nerves can be of help.
When using these remedies, it is important that you do not become too relaxed as this may cause you to underperform.
Herbal remedies are often viewed to be the treatment of choice for this type of stress as they are not as intrusive to the body as conventional medicines and less likely to cause side-effects. Herbs such as Valerian and Avena sativa have been used for many years to combat the effects of stress and are today, widely available.
In addition, herbs such as Ginkgo biloba have been used to help with concentration and memory by improving blood flow in the brain.
You can also use Concentration Essence to help focus your mind.