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Coping with exam stress

June 8, 2020

We all feel a certain amount of stress about taking exams, but the coronavirus has brought a lot of changes that might be adding to the worry for some. While almost all school exams have been cancelled, many colleges and universities are still running theirs in an online format. This change, combined with the ongoing disruption in other areas of life caused by lockdown, will be easier to handle for some people than others.

For those who dread the pressure of the exam room – the silence, the invigilators, everyone scribbling frantically around them – the change might come as a relief. Those who find that the traditional exam setting helps to keep them focused, and who tend to do better under those conditions, might be worried. This could be especially true if they need to concentrate with family or housemates around.

Exam stress is normal, but some of the coping techniques and strategies you’d normally use to relax and let off steam, such as meeting up with friends or going to the gym, might not be possible. Even in this unusual situation, however, there are some things you can do now to address and manage your feelings, and get ready to tackle the challenge ahead.

Be prepared – know what you need to do.

Every college and uni will be running their exams differently. Make sure you know well in advance when they are, and exactly how the new process will work. Find out if there are mock tests available to practice on. This will help you feel more in control, and reduce some of the uncertainty.

Plan ahead.

Your revision timetable might look different from usual. Some people are finding it harder to concentrate for long periods at the moment, so revising in shorter bursts might be more effective. If you have assignments or other tasks that feel daunting, break them down into manageable chunks. Take regular breaks to eat, get outside, and talk to other humans where possible.

Stick to a routine.

Try to go to sleep and wake up at the same time each day, and the same goes for eating meals. This is a simple thing, but it’ll help you to keep your head together. Incorporate relaxation and fun into your routine. Find a way to replace the interactions you’d normally have with friends and course mates – having a regular video call to look forward to can make a huge difference. Reward yourself when you’ve completed a task or finished revising.

Knock procrastination on the head!

If you find you’re putting something off, tell yourself you’ll work on it for five minutes and see how you get on. Chances are you’ll get in the flow and feel motivated to keep going.

Create the ideal exam conditions for you.

Think about the environment you tend to work best in, and recreate that as best you can. You might not be able to control everything, but if you’re locked down with family or friends let them know when your exams are, and that you’ll need quiet with no interruptions. Ask them to stay off the wifi so they don’t end up having a massive gaming session when you’re trying to get online! One positive here is that if you’re not at your best in the usual exam setting, you can choose to do something different – for example, having music on low in the background if this helps you concentrate.

Challenge negative thoughts.

If you tend to feel a bit panicky in the run up to exams, and thoughts such as “I’m rubbish at exams!” or “I can’t cope!” start creeping in, then you’re most certainly not alone. Recognise the thought, and put it under the spotlight. Is there any evidence that it’s true? What about evidence that shows otherwise? For example, maybe you failed one exam last year, but passed all the rest.

Be kind to yourself.

This is a tough time for everyone, and you’re being expected to handle an already stressful situation with added difficulties, such as not being able to go to the library or see your tutor when you need to. Everything’s just a little bit harder! If you feel your focus slipping, or you aren’t getting as much done as you hoped, don’t beat yourself up.

Try to focus on the here and now. On top of your exams, you might be feeling uncertain about things like when you’ll be going back to uni, and how you’ll be taught. If you’re graduating, you might be anxious about job opportunities. Try to anchor yourself in the moment, rather than worrying about the future. Remind yourself of everything you’ve achieved so far, and why you chose the course you’re on. Remember this situation won’t last forever – and all your peers are in the same boat. Your job now is to take it day by day, and complete your studies as best you can.

Your university or college will probably have published their own practical tips and suggestions for coping with exams this summer, so check the website or ask your tutor.

While exam stress is normal, if you find yourself really struggling – for example not sleeping or eating properly, or worrying obsessively – it might be a good idea to seek some form of mental health support. Your university can be the first port of call, or you could ask your GP what services are available locally.

ieso offers online cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) in some areas of the country, which can be accessed without any waiting times, allowing you to get help quickly. Find out whether we offer CBT in your area and register here.

ieso Online Therapy
This blog has been written by a member of the clinical team at ieso.
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