Coping with Exam Stress for Young People

Gillian Marchant is an Accredited member of the British Association of Counselling and Psychotherapy and manages the counselling service at the Letchworth Centre. in this blog she discusses her thoughts on dealing with exam stress for young people and the ways they can manage their symptoms.

The sun is shining and it’s getting warmer. It must be exam season! This can be a stressful time of year with the thought of having to sit in a big hall in silence, trying to remember all that stuff and worrying about getting the grades you need. Not everyone will feel stressed, but for those who do the stress can be so overwhelming that it is hard to cope with.

Stress and anxiety can be caused by a number of things: lack of confidence, fear of letting yourself or others down, high expectations of yourself, from your school and even from your parents. It is understandable that these things will start to cause stress during the exam period and it is likely to feel worse the first time you sit exams. This is because you are not used to the experience and you don’t know what to expect.

Stress can, however, work to your advantage if you keep it safely controlled at the right levels. This is because it may help you to work at your optimum performance level, keeping you focused and attentive.

But, there’s no harm in reducing stress levels as much as possible! In advance, it is helpful to get organized to making sure you’ve all the tools you will need e.g. pens, pencils, eraser, highlighters, ruler and calculator. You may want to check with your teachers about any specialist equipment that may be needed. Also, make sure that you know exactly what exams you are sitting; nothing is more unnerving than preparing for the wrong exam. Always have a spare copy of your exam schedule on your desk or computer.

To help you feel like you’ve all the knowledge you’ll need, revision is a must. There is no hard and fast rule about how to revise or when but it is a good idea to make a revision timetable which suits you and where you can keep a record of how many hours you’ve spent on each subject. This way, you can ensure you are covering every subject and any topics you feel less confident with you could spend a little more time on. Generally speaking, little and often is better for absorbing information than spending great lengths of time revising, or cramming the day before the exam. Get to know which time of day you work best in, whether you concentrate best on your own or in a supportive group, in quiet or with music on, at home, school, a friend’s house or the library. Going through past exams can be helpful or revision vlogs on the internet. Be creative and keep it dynamic.

On the day of the exam keep calm and clear headed. There are many ways to calm ourselves, for example breathing! Yes, we do this without thinking about it but when we’re feeling anxious and stressed our breathing tends to become more shallow and faster and the muscles in our chest contract, adding to the tension. Becoming mindful of your breath and consciously relaxing your muscles around our upper body, neck, arms and stomach helps to reduce the tension. Concentrating on taking slow, deep breaths takes your mind off worrying about the exam you’re about to sit, counting up to at least 10 breaths. Once you’re in the exam hall, make sure you read all of the questions carefully. Reading questions in a hurry means you can miss vital information and this is one of the biggest mistakes that people make. Do your best: that’s all anyone can do.

Once the exam day is done try relaxing for a while before thinking about the next one. There are many ways in which to relax and some will sound more appealing than others, for example:

  • Sit down, close your eyes and just breathe slowly and deeply, relaxing any muscles which feel tense.
  • Go for a walk in the countryside.
  • Go for a work out at the gym or play sports
  • Lose yourself gaming
  • Socialize with your friends, but try to avoid talking about the exam you have just taken!
  • Spend time with family.
  • Watch a film
  • Listen to or play music

In reality the list is endless; the key is doing something you enjoy which helps distract you and allows you to relax physically as well as mentally.

There are a few tips that help to deal with stress and anxiety in general, not just at exam time. Making sure you get enough, good quality sleep each night, drinking plenty of water every day and eating healthily all help to feel well. When we feel well, stress is easier to cope with and we can then feel more confident.

If the stress and anxiety starts to feel overwhelming it may be helpful to talk things through with someone. This could be a family member, friend, teacher or a professional such as a counsellor. Counsellors who are trained in working with young people are familiar with the pressures at exam time. It may be that the stress or anxiety is not just about taking exams but that this is adding extra pressure to how you have already been feeling. By bottling up any feeling that you have, you may make things more difficult to cope with as pressure mounts up. It is completely understandable that people under stress do not feel able to talk about their problems. There is always the fear of being completely overwhelmed or of sounding stupid. Talking to a therapist or counsellor in the environment where everything that is said and done is kept in strict confidence can help you to contain and get over those feelings. It can also help you to understand why you feel that way, and how you are able to solve any issues that you are facing.