May 2015 – Exam Stress – The Guildford Psychologist

Around this time of year, many children and young adults struggles with the stress of exams. If you’re going through this, or you know someone who is, my aim is to help reduce your / their stress levels and help this period to be as productive as possible.

Often when a child, adolescent or adult comes to see me for exam stress, they are displaying a number of signs of anxiety and/or low mood including:

– Negatively predicting how the exams will go and what will happen if they do not do as well as they hope
– Self-critical thoughts about what it’ll mean about them if they do not do well. Also self critical thoughts when they’re struggling to learn/understand something they are revising.

– Feeling despondent
– Feelings of panic
– Feelings of guilt when not revising
– Feeling inadequate
– Lack of interest or pleasure in things

– Struggling to start revising (procrastination)
– Struggling to stop revising and take helpful breaks
– Sleeping difficulties
– Being easily annoyed or irritable
– Having difficulty relaxing

Physiological Symptoms
– Lack of energy
– Tiredness

These thoughts, feelings, behaviours and physiological symptoms may be interrelated. However, whilst it can be easy for someone on the outside to see an unhelpful cycle a student is engaging in, the student themselves may be too enmeshed in the cycle to recognise what is occurring – i.e., unable to see the wood for the trees. This is where an objective person (family member, friend, teacher or therapist) can be of help.

In using Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT), my aim is to help a student recognise and work on unhelpful cycles they may be engaging in and come up with alternative cycles. The goal would never be to delete stress – after all, a level of stress can help us motivate ourselves – instead, the goal is to lower this stress level so that it does not negatively impact on performance and feel overwhelming.

Here are a few quick tips I hope will help.

1. Aim for ‘good enough’
When revising, sometimes we can get caught in the perfectionism cycle. For example, we may want to ensure we’ve understood something 100% before we move onto the next topic. Or we may not even try to understand something because we do not believe we’ll be able to fully understand it.

If you’re struggling with this, allow yourself to be ok with not knowing all of something, and just to know enough. Speak to yourself in a kind and compassionate way when you find yourself struggling to understand something and ask yourself how you would motivate someone who was also struggling with this.

2. Healthy body, Healthy mind
It may look like revising takes up little energy (after all, you’re just sitting down!), but the brain requires lots of fuel during revision. Therefore, try to ensure you’re putting the right amount of nutrients into your body (see for a healthy plate)

Also exercise can be helpful – a short brisk walk can be really helpful and help the brain step back from the stress of exams / revising.

3. Reward yourself
We all work well with rewards. Allow yourself time off from revision to do fun stuff – this’ll help motivate you to continue revising, and also keep your mood levels up.

4. Sleep well
Get a sleep routine in place. Aim to go to bed and get up at the same time each day and give yourself a minimum of an hour to wind down in the evening before you go to bed – this’ll help the quality of your sleep.
If you revise as well as you can, then how you do is irrelevant. You’ve strived to do as well as you can and so therefore if:
– a question comes up that’s not your forte
– you have a random brain freeze
– you have a dodgy examiner
– you’re ill on the day

then you have still strived to do your best and you can not do any more than that.

Do get in touch if you’d like further support with exam stress. I can offer support to either the student or their family members.