Prioritising your Mental Health this exam season

Published: 2 Mar 2016

Eleanor Vowles, Learning Mentor

Mentioning the dreaded “E” word as early as March is not usually very well received, and frankly, I can understand why. As someone who spends a lot of their time trying to prepare students to sit their GCSEs and A-levels, exam stress is something I hear about way more often than I would like and the prevalence of chronic stress among young people seems to be constantly increasing. In spite of this, exam stress and study-related mental health issues seem to still be swept under the rug. So, just in case you don’t hear it anywhere else this year, consider this your call to prioritise your mental health this exam season! Use the tips and tricks below to try and help you along the way.

Prepare

This seems like a fairly obviously way of avoiding pre-exam panic, but when you’re battling your own demons, the absolute last thing you want to do is take on some French revision as well! When I say prepare, I mean for every eventuality; don’t write your revision timetables or to-do-lists with some ideal version of you in mind. Be realistic. If you know that some days you can barely face getting out of bed, don’t pledge to start revising at 9am every morning. If the pressure to work quickly fills you with anxiety, don’t give yourself strict deadlines to complete every task.

One way that can be helpful to plan your revision is to create weekly to-do lists with clear, goal-directed tasks (e.g. “Complete 2014 English Past Paper” or “Complete Chapter 5 of Maths Textbook” rather than just “Do English Revision”). That way, you’re allowing yourself some flexibility and also giving yourself clear aims and accomplishments. On a good day, you might be able to complete 5 things on your list and on a bad day you might not complete any. That’s okay, because you’ve planned to accommodate it.

Take breaks

Whatever your mental state, locking yourself away in a dark room and revising solidly for 7 hours is not healthy and it probably won’t be as productive as you’d think either. Make sure you take breaks and allow yourself time to relax and do the things that you enjoy!

If you create revision timetables, plan in the things you love to do first. Whether it’s playing football on Saturday morning, a cinema trip with your friends one evening or a lazy morning in bed, you shouldn’t have to cut out the things that you love doing to make room for revision. If you do, you’ll end up burning out, getting bored and not being able to concentrate.

When in the swing of revision, try and take a 5 minute break at least every 30 minutes. During this time, try and put your work fully out of your mind and move away from your study space until you plan to begin work again.

Care for your body

This is another tip that may seem really obvious, but if you feel like you’re crumbling under the pressure to keep up with your studies, even things like taking care of yourself can fall by the wayside. It’s important to try and make sure you’re eating healthily, staying hydrated and getting enough sleep. When composing a to-do-list or timetable, try to include these things. It will make sure you actually do them, but if you’re in a slump and struggling to make progress with any of your tasks, being able to cross something easy off your list might help to motivate you. On days where you feel especially low and unable to complete revision, try motivating yourself to do something simple like get up and take a shower or bath. Sometimes, completing small self-care tasks can make you feel a little better.

It’s also important to try and make sure you get some fresh air at least once a day. It doesn’t sound like much, but under the stress of revision during exam leave it is not unheard of to look up from your books one Thursday and realise that you haven’t left the house since Monday! Studies have shown that time outdoors boosts your mood and can also aid revision, so switch it up by doing some reading outside or, better still, just put down your work and go for a walk every now and then.

Communicate

It’s a cliché, but sharing your feelings and stresses with others really can lighten the load. You don’t have to go to others seeking a solution for your problems (after all, they can’t do your studying for you) but being able to vent and get things off your chest can be really cathartic. Whenever you feel like everything is getting too much, call a friend or speak to your family about how you’re feeling – and make sure to offer them the chance to do the same with you if they need. It’s also worth noting that you can speak to someone at your school or, if you’re a Scholar, your Learning Mentor.

If the very thing that’s causing you stress is other people, try and speak to them about it. The idea of having this sort of conversation can be daunting, particularly for those who deal with anxiety, but it may be the case that the people in question don’t realise how much stress and upset they’re causing you!

If you don’t feel like sharing with your friends and family is not an option, find some other ways to express your feelings. You might want to start a diary where you can jot down whatever you’re feeling to get it out of your system or share anonymously online. Equally, there are tonnes of outlets available for you if you do want to share as yourself – you can call ChildLine who are specifically prepared to speak to students during exam time (their number is 0800 1111 and they have online services too!) or other phone lines. However you express yourself, it’s important to not just bury your emotions.

Keep perspective

In exam season everyone indulges in a bit of hyperbole. Whenever the slightest speedbump comes along, you’re suddenly going to fail and when you do your lives will be over forever. What people usually mean when making these outlandish statements is that they might get a C rather than the A grade that they’re hoping for and that would mean they might have to study their second choice at University rather than their first – definitely not a failing and definitely not the end of the world!

It’s important to try and challenge these negative messages that you present yourself with and avoid spiralling into a pit of despair. When you start thinking “I’m going to fail!” try and stop yourself and think about the evidence that supports and contradicts that statement. Is there any evidence to suggest that you will fail? What evidence suggests you will succeed? Make a list of both of these and re-evaluate your original statement. Equally, rather than just stressing about how awfully you think you’re going to do, try and think of things you can do to combat your worst case scenario. Stressing about your Geography exam? Maybe allocate some extra time to practice past papers. By acknowledging your worries in a realistic way and creating solutions, you’ll be able to nip the issues in the bud.

 

To close, if you have concerns about your mental wellbeing please make sure you talk to someone (a family member, teacher or appropriate adult) about it and get the help you need. Asking for help may be difficult at first, but is ultimately an important step to feeling better and often just sharing your concerns with someone can ease the anxiety. Also, remember that sometimes when you are dealing with extreme stress or issues around mental wellbeing during the exam session it can help if you stop and breathe. It’s amazing how different you can feel after stopping, closing your eyes and taking a deep breath in and out.

More Information

  • Childline is a website that has information to help you in dealing with basically every problem imaginable and there is a lot that focuses on exam stress and mental health.
  • The NHS has information from a medical perspective – there are a number of guides to coping with various mental health issues and high stress, as well as advice about where to go if you need more help.
  • The Student Room is a forum with official threads about a whole range of different things. It’s a great place to find out how other people manage their exam stress and to have a chat with people who feel the same way as you.

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