How to Beat Exam Stress!

With exam time imminent, many students feel a huge level of stress in the lead up to and during exams. It’s an unavoidable part of student life that can be tough to manage. The key to surviving exam stress is to take control and manage the stressors before it gets the better of you. To help you survive, we have talked to our leading experts in Stress Management in the Institute of Health Sciences and put together some expert advice on sleep, nutrition and stress reducing techniques for you to practice at home. 

Stress Management

Shane Pearson, NLP & Stress Management Unit Leader & Lecturer, Health & Wellness Coaching Lecturer

If you are feeling a bit stressed about the upcoming exams or if you start to feel anxious before or even during the exams it simply means that these exams are important to you! It also suggests that your focus may be going towards what you don’t want rather than what you do want.

Your mind is neutral and without your conscious input your thoughts may stray to what could go wrong rather than to focusing on the result or outcome that you do want. If the mind is allowed stray to thoughts that are fear based you might end up saying things to yourself like: “I don’t want to fail English!”

The stress response that makes you feel stressed and anxious is triggered just as easily by the thoughts you think inside your mind as by the real life events outside of you. If you allow your thoughts to stray and to focus on what could go wrong things can escalate because fear breeds fear and you could end up having more fearful thoughts that further triggers stress and so on and so on. That vicious cycle sure can get in the way of doing and feeling your best when exam time comes.

So what can you do about this?

Firstly, remember your mind is neutral and left untethered is likely to conjure up all sorts of thoughts and some of them may be fear based and worrying enough to trigger your stress. It is up to you to guide your mind and your thoughts back, as often as is needed, to positive thoughts.

Put simply: ‘Focus On What You Want and not on What You Don’t Want.’

Now, put yourself at the end of the successful completion of the exams, where you know you have done your best.

What does that look like? What sounds do you hear? How good does it feel to know it is all over now and that you have done your best?

Get clear on this positive outcome and when your mind strays to restless thoughts guide it back to this scene, over and over, until you have created it.

Sleeping Your Way to Exam Success

Suzanne Laurie, IHS Director, Unit Leader & Lecturer

Exam time is stressful, and stress can lead to poor quality and quantity of sleep. The big problem here? Sleep is vital for helping the brain retain and recall what it has learnt during the day, so when you’re swotting for exams it’s key to do what you can to ensure a good night’s sleep. Here are some tips you can use to help calm your mind in the evenings and create a relaxing bedroom that you’ll struggle to stay awake in!

  • It might be hard but stop work/study at least 2 hours before bedtime. Cramming late at night can be counterproductive as if it limits sleep then your ability to retain and recall what you learnt that day may be reduced. This is particularly important if you study in your room as you need to mentally separate study from sleep
  • Minimise use of phones/computers/tablets/TV particularly later in the evening: Blue light from electronic devises reduces melotonin production. Content is also often stimulating rather than relaxing. If you are using a phone then consider using blue light reducers: night mode or an app like Twilight
  • Ease the transition from wake time to sleep time with a period of relaxing activities for at least 30 minutes before bed: Take a bath (the rise, then fall in body temperature promotes drowsiness), add 1-2 cups Epsom salts (high in magnesium), ½ to 1 cup baking soda and 10 drops lavender oil, read a fun book that is not too stimulating, practice relaxation exercises for 10 minutes such as deep breathing (slowly breath in to the count of 4 and out for the count of 4, repeat several times), meditation and progressive muscle relaxation (a number of Apps can help with this: Headspace, Sleep Genius, Digipill)
  • Avoid taking problems or concerns to bed. Journaling has been shown as an effective way of letting go and inducing relaxation
  • Try using a sleep inducing app featuring ambient noises/images etc on your phone: Noisli, White Noise & Pzizz are all great
  • Turn your bedroom into a bat cave: Use blackout curtains/blinds, keep the room temperature regulated and room ventilated, tidy-up: clutter can be stress inducing, turn down the light in the bathroom and in rooms you are in 30-15 minutes before going to bed and avoid turning on bright lights if you get up during the night, turn off or remove any appliances or clocks that make noise/cause unnecessary light, try to avoid using electronic equipment in bed and turn phones etc to night-time mode so they do not disturb you, make your room as relaxing as possible in the evening: play some relaxing music, use lavender oil or similar on your pillow, keep the lights low!

Exam Nutrition

Gwen Enright, Dip NLC Unit Leader, Personal Tutor & Lecturer, Dip NT Unit Leader & Lecturer

Nutrition and eating properly is really important around exam time and there are certain foods which you should try to include in your diet such as oily fish, extra protein, berries and dark leafy green vegetables. Why? Oily fish contains a high amount of DHA, an Omega 3 fatty acid that is known for its brain power. Babies in the womb need it to form the brain and it’s been shown to help prevent cognitive decline – so make sure you pack in oily fish, tinned are easy and affordable, think wild salmon, sardines, mackerel and anchovies. Every meal and snack should contain some protein (think eggs for breakfast, hummus or nut butters for snacks, animal protein like fish and meat, and vegetable protein like lentils, nuts and beans), as this will help stabilise blood sugar levels and reduce the likelihood of drops in blood sugar, which can lead to brain fog, sugar cravings and fatigue. Add in berries every day as these are full of anti-oxidants that are good at protecting our brains, and make sure to include dark green leafy vegetables every day (e.g. spinach, rocket, cabbage and co), which contain anti-oxidants, vitamin K and B vitamins, which are essential for forming memories.

Hydration is really important too so drink plenty of water – the brain needs it! Even a small loss of hydration causes brain fog and confusion, not what you want during an exam, so bring a bottle with you wherever you go and take regular sips throughout the day. Aim for at least two bottles of water during study/ exam time and increase this if it’s warm. Instead of going for coffee when you feel you need caffeine, try green tea instead – it boosts concentration too!

To help you meal plan here is a typical meal plan which is easy to follow and will keep your mind and body in sync. If you are in a rush why not start with a smoothie which you can enjoy on your way to the exam? Add in 1 small banana, 1 scoop porridge oats, 1 scoop protein powder, 2 – 3 frozen cauliflower florets, 1 heaped tbsp smooth peanut butter and a handful each of baby leaf spinach and berries (blueberries or blackberries have a high anti-oxidant content in particular). This will surely keep you going through your first exam. As a mid-morning snack, make sure you have some nuts like walnuts, almonds and brazil nuts (high in fat – good for the brain) and perhaps 2 homemade energy balls. For lunch add in a salad (with leafy greens like spinach, rocket and lettuce), oily fish and a slice of sourdough bread with butter. In the afternoon try some oat cakes with hummus (slow release carbohydrates with protein) and finish off the day with a well balanced dinner containing at least two types of vegetables, some wild rice and perhaps chicken curry.