Exams can result in stress and burn-outs in students, and most of the time, they are caused by a fear of not reaching a set expectation. A right amount of stress can be beneficial as it prevents procrastination and provides the motivational push to get things done in time. However, dealing with stress can be a difficult task to do. If one is unable to find the right balance, stress can become unhealthy and do more harm than good to the student. The root of stress is in one’s mind, and mental discipline is a large part of what is needed to succeed.
Tips to manage Exam Stress
Below are tips on how to manage exam stress.
1. Set realistic goals
Many students will give themselves too much to do with too little time. With the exam date drawing closer, they realize that they are unable to accomplish their tasks, and become stressed. Hence, it is important to be realistic. If you know you have a major exam coming up, give yourself at least 1 month to prepare for it. Break down the learning materials into smaller chunks, and spread the contents out over the span of a month. For example, if you have a month to study 15 topics for a certain subject, you can split it into 3 groups of 5; which means that you only have to focus on studying 5 topics per week, and have the last week free to do a summary revision of all the topics.
When you are setting goals, give yourself buffer time as well. Using the example from above, if you have 5 topics to study per week, it means that you only have to study 1 topic per day, and have 2 days of buffer time available. While you are studying, you may realize that some topics are more difficult, or longer, than others, and they may take you 2 days instead of 1 day to complete. Knowing beforehand that you have a 2-day buffer period, you would less likely be stressed over not completing your 1-topic-per-day goal.
Being prepared early and efficiently working with the time that you have maximizes one’s productivity without the risk of a burn-out.
2. Take good care of yourself: Sleep, Eat, Exercise
To be productive, your brain must be alert. That cannot be achieved by pulling all-nighters, eating poorly, or getting minimal amounts of movements. Students are often under the misconception that doing these make them feel like they are being more productive, but instead, it has been scientifically proven that these increases symptoms of stress and anxiety.
If you think about it in another perspective: Hypothetically, if you can finish revising a topic in 2 hours with 8-9 hours of sleep, and you compare this to having slept 4-5 hours, where you need to spend 3, or even 4 hours to finish revising the same amount of material. Although it might seem like you have saved 4-5 hours by cutting back on sleep, you brain would not function as well as it should: you process information slower, your memory retention time shortens, and you will probably be in a sour and stressed mood. Besides, with sufficient sleep, you would be able to catch up on that seemingly “wasted” time after 2-4 topics. The result? Better mood, quicker understanding, and longer memory retention.
I have personally experimented this on myself, and after trial-and-error, I have come to the realization that my brain functions at its best with 8-9 hours of sleep every night, and I have been sticking to this rule ever since, especially during exam season. If I lack sleep, my brain would not remember the lecture contents very well, and I would often find myself forgetting the materials afterwards, and spend additional time in the following days to remember everything again. Meanwhile, with sufficient rest, I would study happily, with a positive mindset, and have improved memory retention. If you calculate it out, and weigh the pros and cons, you will come to the realization that it is not worth it to “save time” by sleeping fewer hours. Additionally, it is more important to be a happy and healthy student.
Adding on to the above point, do not skip meals just to study that extra half hour! Eat a well-balanced diet, with carbohydrates, proteins, vegetables, and fruits. It will help you in the long run. There are also many scientific studies that show the benefits and importance of eating well prior to exams, or any other stressful situation in general. They are important for sustained energy, better focus, and more efficient brain functioning.
If you are food-motivated, use this “superpower” for good! What I used to do was to have a bowl of apples, or a small packet of sweet/cookies in front of me, and after I finished memorizing a page, I would reward myself with a slice of apple, or a sweet/cookie. This not only keeps me happy, but also makes learning fun.
Staying hydrated is often something that we might overlook. Surprisingly, drinking plenty of water is actually one of the best ways to stay focused. Studies have found out that even mild dehydration can lead to tiredness, headaches, reduced alertness and diminished concentration.
If you do not have a habit of drinking water, and would like something flavored, opt for tea such as peppermint, chamomile, and passionflower, instead of coffee or soft drinks. Although coffee and soft drinks are the more tempting choices, they actually lead to energy peaks and troughs due to their high sugar content. You may feel excited or energized for a while, however, after the initial energy peak diminishes, you will find yourself more tired than before.
The mental benefits of exercise have a neurochemical basis. A study by Harvard University showed that exercise reduces levels of the body’s stress hormones, such as adrenaline and cortisol. It also stimulates the production of endorphins, which are chemicals in the brain that acts as the body’s natural painkillers and mood elevators. Endorphins are responsible for the “runner’s high” and for the feelings of relaxation and optimism that accompany many hard workouts — or, at least, the hot shower after your exercise is over.
Aim for 30 minutes of exercise per day, and it can really make the difference. When you feel like your concentration is depleting, or just do not feel like studying anymore, go for a quick run or walk. You can effectively use this time to catch up on your favourite show, listen to a podcast or an audiobook, or watch YouTube videos, and before you know it, the 30 minutes are up! After you take a hot and relaxing shower, and sit in front of your study table again, you will feel much more refreshed and energized.
6. Reward yourself: Taking appropriate breaks
We are not robots; hence, it is impossible to remain at the same level of productivity all the time. Taking appropriate study breaks are important as it not only relaxes yourself, but also helps to clear your mind, allowing you to gain new perspectives when you start your next study session. Often, when I am stuck at a question, I would go for a quick study break, and when I come back to it afterwards, I somehow always manages to answer it right. It feels like I came back with a new brain after every study break! These breaks help maintain study performance and increase focus, reduce stress, and help students better retain information. The length of the study break depends on what suits you the most: different people have different preference over study breaks, some prefer to study for longer periods of time followed by a long study break, while others prefer to study for shorter intervals followed by shorter breaks. Many people like to follow the Pomodoro time management method, whereby you study for 25 minutes followed by a 5 minutes break, and you repeat this process until you are done studying for a certain subject or topic.
What you do during the study breaks is also very important. Remember, a study break should not be an opportunity for you to procrastinate! Activities such as reading, playing music, play with your pet, tidy your room, eat a snack, etc. are great options. It is proven that these activities can reduce stress by up to 68%! These relax one’s body by lowering one’s heart rate and easing the tension in the muscles. Longer activities such as going out for dinner with family or friends, watching a movie in the cinema, or anything that you enjoy are also great to take your mind off exams and de-stress. Spending a little time away from the books will leave you feeling more refreshed and happier when you return to them afterwards.
It is important to separate studying and relaxing time as two separate things. If you are worrying about your unfinished work or upcoming exams during your study break, it becomes ineffective. The purpose of study breaks is to take your mind off your work for a while by doing healthy, productive activities that relaxes you. Feel no regrets while you are relaxing, remember, you deserve this break. It is well-earned, and you should enjoy it instead of worrying about the future. Always focus on the present. When it is time to study, work hard, and when it is time to play, play hard. Do not intertwine or confuse the two with each other. Master Ugui once said: “Yesterday is history, tomorrow is mystery, but today is a gift, that is why they call it the present”.
7. Believe in Yourself
A lot of times, we get stressed over nothing particularly stress-worthy. If you have worked hard and prepared well for the exam, why worry? You know that you have spent your time wisely over the past month or two, you know that you have done practice papers, and went for consultation sessions with your teachers to clarify your doubts, so why worry? It is because we do not believe in our capabilities. We are afraid that we did not do enough, or that we may accidentally forget something during the exam.
Last minute revisions do not help either, they just make you more stressed out. If you have done your revisions properly, everything that could be tested should be in your brain already. If you really forget something during the exam, it is just a small blank-out. Remember, panicking does not solve the problem. Take a deep breath, and skip that question first. Go back to it after you are done, you will often surprise yourself. Teachers would not give students a problem that they cannot solve. There must be a rational solution to every problem, even if you can’t see it at first glance.
Last minute revisions give students a facade that they are doing something productive before the exam. The truth is, the most productive thing one should do before an exam is to relax themselves, and go into the exam hall with a calm and positive mindset.
When being constantly faced with new challenges, we often forget to look back at how far we have come and how much we have already achieved. Given that you have prepared well, there should be no reason for you to worry. Therefore, when experiencing a negative thought, try to replace it with a positive one. For example, instead of thinking ‘If I don’t get at least an A, I am a failure’, think ‘Whatever I get, I will be proud of myself and value how much I have already achieved’. You can do this!
Positive thinking produces natural chemical called serotonin, which creates a sense of well-being and helps your brain to function at peak capacity.
8. Do not compete with others: Focus on your own progress
As the old saying goes: “comparison is the thief of joy”. While it is helpful to discuss topics with your classmates and revise together, never compare other peoples’ progress to your own. Chances are, you are doing great, and listening to other people talk about their revision might be stressful to some as it makes the feel like they are not doing enough and have to catch up. Besides, if they themselves are stressed, this might have an effect on yourself too.
Everyone has a unique path in life, destined for different things. It is important to realize that no one succeeds at the same pace. You are right where you need to be right now, and you are enough. Additionally, if someone is more successful than you, it simply means that they have failed more times than you have.
My mum always told me: Focus on the process, not the result. Result is something that we cannot control. The only thing that we can control, is the process. Isn’t it silly to worry about something that we have no control over? If you have worked hard throughout the exam preparation process, you need not worry, as you have already done everything that you can, and need to do.
The root cause of stress of emotional, and it is not something that we can blame on others. It is something that we have control over. People can have high expectations of you, but you can simply choose to ignore it and not let this fact stress you out. Often, we are afraid of not reaching others’ (or our own) expectations, hence, causing stress. Stress is hence self-inflicted, frequently triggered by fear. It is all a matter of mindset or perspective. This is the same concept as a half-filled cup: you can choose to look at is as half-full, or half-empty. You can feel honored that others expect great results from you, and use that as a fuel, or you can choose to stress out over it. Remember, stress does not solve problems. Actions do. You can do it! 😊