Exam Stress? Self-care Tips

graduatesSTRESS, the very word is defined as significance, meaning, emphasis, consequence, weight, value and worth, all of which could apply to the taking examinations. And then there is the other meaning of stress … And that’s the kind I am concerned with here.

Young people across the globe are currently in the throws of preparing for exams. In my own home there is an atmosphere of ‘now or never’; the days are slipping away on the revision timetable, posted on the fridge. Gone is the opportunity to fob me off with pleads of “I’ve got plenty of time Mum, chill”.

I am trying to be chilled, but with two out of three of my children taking exams, I’m very aware of a delicate balance to be struck in terms of encouragement versus provoking more stress. I can feel the pull to ask “Are you sure you are doing enough?”, an internal voice I am trying to ignore.

One child will hear your words as nagging another as a reminder to push on. It is easy to say too much and in doing so inadvertently lump on more pressure. In a bid to becalm our parental anxieties, ‘holding’ our own negative feelings around exams and choosing to keep them to ourselves, or sharing them with someone other than our child, may be a better outcome for all concerned.

Not every student feels they can, or even want to, work for exams and we know many successful, happy people have not, but what if you suspect your child is lazy, avoidant or simply disorganised? It would be understandable if you feel you can’t just sit by and watch it happen. I believe, as a parent we have a duty of care – to support and notice when things are wrong?

I don’t profess to have all the answers to this dilemma and individual circumstances will vary, however, it may help to sit down together and have a face-to-face chat with your son or daughter. It sounds obvious, but how often do we do that?

Choose a time and place when you will not be interrupted by marauding siblings, and a location that offers a neutral setting. Aim to keep your tone respectful, not accusing and be prepared to listen without interrupting. You could try the following questions:

  • How are you feeling about the exams at the moment?
  • What helpful advice would you give yourself at this time?
  • Is there anything I can do to help you prepare?

Try not to take it personally if your child is not forthcoming in their response; we know it is normal for teenagers to be obtuse. You could notice, “You look a little sad”. Or if they react defensively/with anger you could likewise acknowledge this and be curious about what they imagine might be giving rise to those feelings?

Be prepared to listen and show you understand, perhaps mirroring back what you’ve heard, “I hear you are feeling really anxious, that’s understandable”.

If your child will not say anything and you are non-the-wiser by the end of the ‘chat’ let them know that you are there for them and will do your best to be supportive; the act of taking time for the chat and being interested in him supports this.

exam room

Exams are an isolating experience, even when you are spending some time with friends who are studying, ultimately only you can devote the hours required to learn and absorb information, then face the stomach churning day and the intense, nerve jangling experience of the exam itself.

It may help to acknowledge together what makes exams so stressful – the combination of factors playing out in the mix. A selection that comes to mind are:

  • So much importance being placed on the outcome of the exams and uncertainty around the future if the predicted grades are not achieved and university/college places are lost.
  • Being with other students who are similarly stressed out, bemoaning, even crying is not helpful and can create a hysterical backdrop,
  • Giving up or missing out on other more tempting activities can be hard to do, even for a comparatively short period.
  • Watch out for displacement activities such as spending hours on social media. Agree a how best to manage this; suggest that phones and devices are put to one side might be helpful, going somewhere else without distractions sometimes is another possibility (a library or quiet café for example).girl studying in cafe
  • We know that lack of power and control over even the smallest situations can be stress provoking for human beings and young people with less experience and stoicism to draw upon can be profoundly affected or overwhelmed by the uncertainty inherent in the exam process. Therefore, feeling in control over the build up may help.So here are some practical tips to support both of you:
  • Self care should be high on the priority list; good sleep, nourishment (fish or take omega 3’s optimises brain function) cut down on sugar intake to avoid high/lows caused by glycaemic dips, eat whole foods regularly to maintain performance.
  • This is not a time for weight loss or as my daughter’s teacher put it, “No ball dress dieting, and don’t fall in love, break up with your boyfriend or get sun burnt”.
  • Limit alcohol intake or cut out altogether if possible, it will inhibit clarity and encourages low mood afterwards.
  • Have a timetable of the days between now and the exams; plan what work will be done when, but also schedule in down time in which to exercise and relax.
  • Be kind and compassionate to yourself during this time and remember this is an opportunity to show the world what you are capable of.
  • Envisage yourself going into the exam sitting down, picking up your pen and successfully doing what you need to do.
  • Some people find alternative medicine helps with exam nerves and take Arnica or calming herbal remedies.
  • Plan some treats for after the exams and look forward to putting the whole thing behind you, kick back and live a little.
  • Remember that whatever the outcome of exams, they are just that, not life threatening, and there will be a path to follow. Often exams can be re sat if you feel you could have done better. Likewise, it could be time to have a rethink about future dreams and aspirations.

Finally, good luck and please comment if you have anything to add.

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