Exam stress: 10 ways to control it

Did you find the mocks tough? Now’s the time to get into the right headspace for the big exam

Getting a good night’s sleep is crucial to concentration and productivity. Photograph: iStock

So, the mocks are finishing up and students have experienced the process. Regardless of the results, that is an important step. One of our biggest fears is the fear of the unknown.

The mocks are the dress rehearsal, so being familiar with the process should alleviate some of the dread.

Leaving Cert (and Junior Cert) stress is inevitable but, rather than being exclusively negative, stress can actually help us to perform at our best. If parents and students alike follow the tips below, the exam experience can be a positive and productive one for all involved.

1. You're not alone. Stress has a nasty way of making us feel isolated, but everyone feels stress. Edginess, palpitations, poor sleep, feelings of dread are just some of the very normal symptoms you may experience. You are not going mad! You are preparing for one of the biggest events of your life to date.


Be determined that you will use this stress to your advantage. As the great basketball player Michael Jordan says: "Being nervous isn't bad. It just means something important is happening."

2. Breathe. Controlled breathing is the best antidote to a racing mind. When you feel your mind is becoming scrambled, simply stop and breathe slowly. By slowing down your breathing, you are slowing down your thoughts. This will make you feel more in control. Here is a simple exercise to help slow your breating: breathe in through your nose for four seconds. Hold for four seconds. Breathe out through the mouth for eight seconds. Take three of these slow breaths. It only takes about a minute. If you do this exercise at least eight times across the day, you will lower your blood pressure and will think more clearly as a result.

3. Walk. One of the first things to suffer when we are feeling under pressure is our leisure pursuits. This is a mistake. Our time off is every bit as important as our time on. We are all aware of the benefits of exercise so it is important to maintain activity levels at times of pressure, if nothing else but to keep a clear mind. Walking is probably the easiest and best activity of all. To make the most of it, leave the phone behind, smell the flowers, observe the colours, breathe in the fresh air, notice your surroundings. A half an hour most days of the week will do wonders.

4. Be mindful. John Lennon once said: "Life is what happens when you are busy making other plans." Psychologists have identified that we spend far too much time regretting past actions and worrying about future events. Ninety five per cent of what we worry about never happens anyway. Mindfulness, an increasingly popular practice, is about training your mind to come into the present. At the very least, aim to make yourself come back to the present when you notice your mind wandering.

5. Hydrate. Most of us do not drink enough water. Headaches, feeling dizzy, moodiness and fatigue are just some of the symptoms related to dehydration. The recommended two litres a day should be a minimum for those doing exams. And do not forget to bring plenty of water with you into each exam.

6. Avoid caffeine. This is where I may fall out with some readers, but there is a clear rationale for following this tip, particularly in the context of stress. Caffeine is a drug and a stimulant. Most of us are addicted to one form or other and it may be difficult to eliminate it altogether. But it is important to be aware that it causes our moods to fluctuate and leads to poor sleep, among other negative effects. Leading up to a big exam, you can do without these additional burdens. Try to replace your caffeine habit with alternatives such as herbal teas, decaffeinated coffee, water and healthy snacks such as nuts and fruit. It will make a huge difference to your sense of well-being.

7. Get good sleep. Since we spend a third of our life sleeping, it is imperative that we get it right. Sleep has a bearing on how productive we are the following day, yet far too many of us are unaware of the fundamentals of getting a good night's sleep.

8. Talk. How you talk to yourself has a huge bearing on how you feel. Many of us tend to be our worst critics. We can call ourselves names we would never call our friends. Aim to change that over the next few months. Be gentle with yourself. Say kind things to yourself: "I am a good person";"Life would be boring if there were no challenges"; "I am unique". And if you are feeling a little panicky, say the following: "I am breathing in calm. I am breathing out fear." How we talk to ourselves has a great bearing on how we feel generally. And never forget that talking to others about problems is truly the problem halved.

9. Plan. Having a study plan will make you feel more in control. Remember to schedule in plenty of breaks and time for exercise. It has been shown that 90 minutes is the optimum time you should spend studying in any one session. After that, you tend to become less efficient. Have a break and then resume when you are ready. Morning time is more productive than evening time and it is preferable to get the bulk of our study done earlier in the week as our application tends to wane towards the weekend. Aim to be in tune with whatever rhythm works best for you.

10. Parents – stay chilled. The Leaving Cert is a tough time for parents as well as for students. However, the student will pick up on parental stress so a relaxed parent will help relax the student. Aim for an calm household, keep conflicts to a minimum, provide nourishing meals and give lots of encouragement to convey to the student that all you are hoping for is that they give it their best effort.

Remember though, that these supportive efforts may not always be acknowledged or reciprocated!

Dr Mark Harrold is a Clinical Psychologist and author of Coping with Stress: Techniques and strategies that will make you feel better.

Sweet dreams: tackle stress with a sleep checklist

All communication devices left outside the bedroom

Room temperature at about 18C

In bed before 11pm

Avoid exercise three hours before bedtime

Avoid caffeine from 6pm

No TV in the bedroom

Pastel colours should abound

Sheets changed regularly

Darkened room with little light penetrating

Avoid news before bedtime

If you can answer “yes” to each of these items you should be sleeping well. If there are any “nos”, take action now – it will make a difference.