Calming tips for the Leaving Cert

We catch up with Leaving Cert veterans of a stress management course to see if they still feel the benefit


Exam stress is very familiar to every student. So last year we highlighted an unusual project at Wexford’s Loreto Secondary School, where teachers and experts teach students coping mechanisms to get them through the angst of preparing for and sitting State exams.

Megan Corcoran and Naoise Brennan took part in the project. Now in university, they describe the strategy and whether it had any impact on their performance.

Corcoran (18) says the months leading up to her exams were very stressful as she had oral tests and an art practical over an arduous two-day period.

“Needless to say, I was very stressed and had difficulty sleeping, which left me in a very bad mood. The closer it got to the exams, the more difficult the study became and I was very tired from both the workload and lack of sleep – I put a lot of pressure on myself to study every minute of the day, which I now realise was silly.

“During our stress-management programme, we learned some great techniques. My favourite was art therapy, as I love being creative, and with music playing and incense burning, we really escaped from it all.”

Corcoran, currently studying communications in Dublin City University (DCU), says that while she loved the dance therapy, yoga and drumming workshop, learning how to calm herself was the most beneficial.

“Psychologist Peadar Maxwell taught us how to calm down, and this was really useful. It involved sitting comfortably, closing our eyes, clenching our fists while taking deep breaths, and then releasing breath and hands very slowly.

“This was great for calming down just before an exam or when I couldn’t focus – I still use it now whenever I get stressed or panicked.

“Without question, I would say all the mechanisms helped and because we did so many there was one for everyone to like and enjoy. It also made me realise that everyone feels the stress and strain in sixth year. And while that’s okay, it’s important to manage it and keep it under control.

“So, if I can give one piece of advice to this year’s Leaving Cert students, it is to make time to relax and don’t spend all day every day studying.”


Looming stress

Ex-classmate Naoise Brennan is now studying to be a nurse in Trinity College. She felt more than ready to take on the pressure of the Leaving Cert at the start of the academic year but as the exams loomed, stress began to take its toll.

“I was feeling okay coming up to the Leaving Cert, and by March felt ready to move on to the next chapter. However, the week before the first exam, I started to feel really stressed as I began to cram. But we did a workshop where we drew mandalas, and I found this very relaxing as you don’t have to be good at art and there is great satisfaction when you have finished.”

Unlike Corcoran, who found quiet exercises the most soothing, Brennan derived satisfaction from making noise. She says Leaving Cert students should find whatever coping mechanism suits them best and shouldn’t let exams take over their lives completely.

“The techniques we learned really helped me to find peace of mind and allowed me to feel more relaxed and confident in myself. However, I would have loved to have done more drumming exercises as it was a great way of getting rid of frustration.

“My advice to Leaving Certs would be to work hard consistently throughout the year, as the exam comes around in no time. But, at the same time, don’t forget to relax and spend time with friends and family. Just because you’re doing the Leaving Cert doesn’t mean you can’t have a life.”

Winding up and unwinding

According to psychologist Peadar Maxwell, taking time to unwind is vital for exam students.

“When exams are looming, students are wound up because it’s obviously a very challenging time and some may become agitated, both physically and emotionally.

“The experts in neurobiology talk about being in a fight-or-flight mode and the need to down-regulate our nervous system so we can think clearly, problem-solve, remember the trove of information in the syllabus and manage our reactions to any challenge a little, or a lot, better.

“Down-regulating means calming ourselves, breathing, relaxing and moving from a survival stance to a more reflective frame of mind. That doesn’t mean being so chilled out that nothing matters.

“What it does mean is putting the challenge into perspective and doing something about it: relaxing the body, organising your study, getting rest and sharing your concerns with a trusted other, such as your parent or good friend.”

Parental supports

The Wexford-based psychologist says parents should become au fait with their child’s schedule and be there to help them get through this trying time.

“Parents should become educated about good study habits, the importance of sleep and exercise, and the effects of too much screen time in advance of their child sitting the Leaving Cert.

“This age group may not respond well to being told what to do; so the important thing is to have an unofficial shared plan in mind beforehand as it will be harder to negotiate things if your ‘practically an adult’ child is stressed in the exam period.

“Also, use the mocks as a way to trial things like getting some fresh air, being mindful of healthy food, winding down for sleep, and balancing competing demands such as study and social life.”

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