Managing exam stress
This post was written by Majda Rogers, a CBT therapist who works in the Advice and Counselling Service at Queen Mary.
Managing exams and assignments can feel overwhelming at the best of times but add living with COVID for another year into the mix and stress can feel even more heightened. Many of you will now be preparing for upcoming exams and so we are re-publishing this post to support you in managing exam stress. You might have already come across lots of helpful tips on how to manage pressure and stress at this time so some of the things included here might sound familiar to you. My hope for this post is to help you see stress differently, to experience it in such a way that it has less of an impact on you so you can feel better able to revise and sit your exams.
So what is stress and why do we feel it? Answering this can help us understand how we can manage and view it differently.
Here comes the science bit…
You are probably familiar with some of the common symptoms of stress such as an increase in heart rate, heart palpitations, sweating, irritability and loss of focus. We feel these things because when we face a perceived threat our brains release chemicals that cause a flight-fight-freeze response. This response is mediated by our nervous system which hasn’t changed much since the time of our primal ancestors. Essentially, it has kept us alive for millions of years as it causes us to react to danger.
In a nutshell, although the things that cause us stress have changed over time, the way we react hasn’t. Also, what sets us apart from other species is that we have the ability to think stressful and anxious thoughts, which can trigger the exact same physiological reaction as if we were actually in danger. Thanks, brain! So although exams and deadlines don’t pose any actual danger to our lives, the way we think about them triggers a similar response.
Let’s look at the following diagram to understand this a bit more.
We can think of the stress response as being made up of three systems, which are interconnected and regulate our emotions.
Our threat system is very powerful, remember: it’s about survival! Exams, in this case, trigger this part which then activates feelings of anxiety. As there is a perceived threat, the drive system is then activated. This system enables us to feel energy, focus and motivation in order to seek out resources and get the things we need. In this way, we can see how stress can actually be helpful. The soothing system is then responsible for releasing hormones to counteract the stress chemicals, which enables us to feel calm and safe. However, if there is too much stress or ‘chronic’ stress over a long period of time, we can get caught in a vicious cycle which can impair the soothing system:
As you can see fearful and self-critical thoughts can lead to unhelpful behaviours such as over studying, cutting out the things you enjoy, not making time for self-care or oversleeping or not sleeping enough. Over time these strategies can become problematic and begin to affect our overall well-being.
So how can we get out of the cycle?
Try to practice noticing what triggers your unhelpful thoughts, to help manage the feelings. You can then ask yourself if the thoughts and behaviours are useful at helping you manage your stress? Here are some actions that might be helpful:
- Break your revision down into small chunks and form a tentative plan which can be adapted as and when you need to. Once you have an idea of what you need to do you won’t have any dilemmas at the start of the day about what to work on
- Prioritise: Which exams do you have, how are the marks allocated, how much do you need to learn for each one. Don’t expect to learn everything, but having in mind where you’ll get the marks can help you prioritise
- Set small achievable goals and tick them off as you go. This will help you feel a sense of achievement to keep the drive system activated
- Try to remind yourself of your motivations for doing the exams; how do these fit in with your overall goals?
It’s all about balance…
Unfortunately, the soothing system is often overlooked or completely blocked for some of us. When preparing for exams it is very easy to neglect this part if we feel there is not enough time or we might feel guilty for doing things that are unrelated to our studies. But as I have discussed, all the systems are connected so they are all equally important. So here are some things you can try to help counter-balance the stress response and activate the soothing system:
- Plan (guilt-free) breaks during your revision and protect this time. Having breaks is just as important as your revision-you need time to rest and recover
- Take time at the end of the day to unwind. Do something that you enjoy such as listen to music, watch TV, or take a hot bath
- Try to get eight hours of sleep, in order to replenish your energy and help you focus
- Get support from family and friends: it might feel good to tell someone how you feel to get it off your chest
For practical strategies on study skills including preparing for exams, visit the Academic Skills webpages: https://www.qmul.ac.uk/library/academic-skills/resources/
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