Coping with exam stress

by Children, Families & Young People team | 05 May 2023

At this time of year, many young people are coping with exam stress, as they get ready for exam season. This might be for SATs, GCSEs, A-Levels, or student exams in further education.

The brain reacts to exams by pattern-matching to previous, emotionally-charged experiences. Our brains respond by detecting things in our environment that set off our stress responses. This can be different for each person. It could include being given the exam timetable, others mentioning the exams and what they expect of us, comparing ourselves to others, walking into an exam room, or simply turning over a paper.

When we experience something that makes us feel that we are under threat, our security officer (or amygdala), the part of our brain that helps to keep us safe, sends signals to our rational, thinking brain. These signals essentially deactive it, so that we are purely focusing on safety.

In an exam situation, this can mean that we are less likely to remember the content we have learned, forget the answers on the spot, or become so overwhelmed that we feel we can’t answer the exam, or even begin.

While we can’t always control the approaching tests, we can control how we respond to it. There are some methods and strategies that can be used to overcome or alleviate some of these feelings, to allow us to perform much better.

We are all different, so finding strategies and methods that work for you can be really helpful, and can allow you to feel more in control, calmer, and able to do your best.

Our tips for coping with exam stress

Feeling in control: the lead up to exams

While we cannot control everything that happens, we can make choices over some things that help us to feel more in control.

  • Be curious. Find out what parts of the exam are worth focusing on. Spending time learning something word-for-word can be time-consuming, when knowing a little of that topic could be enough to get the marks you need.
  • Look ahead. When you receive your exam schedule, work out, realistically, how much time you can schedule for revision. Prioritise learning that helps you feel more secure.
  • Make a plan. Break down the learning and revision that you feel you need to do into parts and tick them off as you go along. You can always go back to specific areas if you have more time.
  • Create a routine. Ensure you have a daily routine for food, sleep and breaks, and also schedule time for yourself. Many people find it helpful to break up revision sessions with movement breaks. This could be walking the dog, going for a run or bike ride, or visiting the gym.
  • Be flexible and be kind to yourself if you don’t stick exactly to your plan. Build in time for reflection too, as when we learn a lot in one go, we need time to process. This can look like ‘drifting off’, doodling, or wandering thoughts. This is normal.

Feeling connected: the week of exams

Finding a balance between being connected to others and knowing what works for you can be challenging. Talking to others about how you are feeling about exams can help put things in perspective, and make you feel like you’re not on your own.

  • Talk to someone. Sharing your feelings and concerns can help you feel less alone.
  • Be aware of comparisons. While it is good to connect with others, we all learn in different ways and have different strengths. Find learning strategies that work for you, and focus on what you feel most comfortable with.
  • Set up study groups with friends on topics you want to know better. Quizzing each other in a supportive way can be beneficial, while recalling topics out loud can help you to make sense of them.
  • Listen. Recording a voice note and listening to it back while doing something else, or getting someone you care about to read something you are learning to you, can help you to feel calm. In the exam, you may be able to recall their voice talking about a topic that you find tricky, to help you remember the content.

Feeling capable: approaching the exam

  • Keep the exams in perspective. While doing your best is important, remember that if it doesn’t go as planned, there may be ways you can retake, or use your skills in a different way.
  • Know what works for you. Some people like to remember things by drawing diagrams, others like to listen, and some remember things by learning rhymes and acronyms. Maybe a combination would work for you. Find the way that you work best.
  • Remember past challenges you overcame. Think of a time you faced a challenge in the past, and what skills you used to approach and overcome it. Maybe you prefer to set a timer and then have a break, or perhaps you like a long period of uninterrupted time. Some people work with music on to keep focused – others need complete silence. Use what worked well for you before.
  • Your feelings are normal. Know that feeling worried and stressed about exams is normal, but it can be made more manageable. Keep coping strategies in mind, such as talking to someone, 7/11 breathing, or periods of movement, to help you feel more in control.

Feeling calm: on the day of the exam

Using strategies that can help you to feel calm can prevent feelings from becoming overwhelming and affecting your ability to complete the exam.

  • Develop a strategy that can help you to feel calm when you feel your emotions rising. Breathing and stretching can help to calm your brain down, so that you can make clear choices, decisions and be more rational about the exam.
  • Try and make it feel like a smaller challenge. A useful way to do this is to use your imagination to see this as a small part of a puzzle, rather than meaning everything.
  • Talk to someone who can help you to feel calm, and use their words to help you to keep focused. ‘You can do this’ and ‘You have done things before that were bigger than this’.
  • Visualise how you want to feel at different points of your exam, and try and focus on the feelings. For instance – ‘When I open the paper, I will feel full of confidence.’ ‘I know I can complete the easier questions first and spend more time on the more detailed ones. ‘Every answer I give, I’ll be one mark closer to my goal.’ ‘If I feel stuck, I will do some 7/11 breathing, move my body a little bit, stretch, then refocus.

We hope you find this article useful this exam season. Please share it with anyone you know may benefit from some support.

by Children, Families & Young People team

Meet the Children, Families & Young People (CFYP) team:

Katie Hollis (right) is our CFYP Relationships Manager, and joined Suffolk Mind in April 2017. Prior to working for Suffolk Mind, she worked as a primary school teacher in a variety of schools across Suffolk and in the Middle East. “I made the decision to join Suffolk Mind because I was ready for a new challenge and passionate about improving mental health and wellbeing for children, families, and young people. Having also experienced poor mental health among my colleagues in schools, I wanted to work with a charity that’s mission was to make Suffolk the best place to talk about and take care of mental health.” Out of work Katie is a busy parent to three boys and spends lots of time stood at the side of soggy football pitches across the county.

Louise Harris (left) is our CFYP Training & Content Manager, while also training to become a Human Givens Psychotherapist. She has been with Suffolk Mind since early 2020 and was previously a primary school teacher and a children’s yoga teacher. Louise delivers CFYP training and develops course materials, and is growing the service into secondary schools, further education settings and family and community groups to cater for the need in mental health provision and education that has increased over the past few years. “I came to Suffolk Mind to use my skills to deliver our education programmes in schools, with the mission to make a real difference to the mental health of children and young people in Suffolk.” Louise is also a parent to two children who like to go on outdoor adventures and plays in a samba band in her spare time.

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