Combatting Exam Stress

Exam season can be a challenging time for students, parents and teachers alike. While it is important for a child to feel positive encouragement to help them feel motivated to study, over-scheduling and excessive emphasis on getting good grades can result in overwhelm and unhealthy levels of stress.

Children respond to stress in the same way as adults. The human body releases hormones inducing the fight or flight response. In moderation this response can be beneficial to exam performance because it is thought that small secretions of stress hormones can increase memory*. However, if triggered on a regular basis it can result in depletion of the autoimmune systems and adrenal exhaustion, leading to burnout.

It is important to look out for signs that your child may be suffering from the longer-term effects of stress so that you can help them to sustain their energy during exam time.

On-going stress negatively affects physiological functions (e.g., sleep, learning and memory). This can result in impaired concentration, memory problems, the experience of depression, anxiety disorders, increased tearfulness, labyrinthitis (extreme dizziness), mental exhaustion, insomnia, persistent restlessness, feelings of overwhelm, moodiness, loneliness, the inability to relax, recurrent dreams, reduced judgment and constant worrying.

These symptoms negatively affect general behaviour and result in becoming more sensitive to criticism, loss of sense of humour, and the development of nervous tendencies.

Physical symptoms include headaches, stomach pains, loss of usual appetite, salt cravings, disturbed sleep, slow cold and flu recovery, excessive sweating (hyperhidrosis), cold hands and feet, irregular heartbeat, panic attacks, physical exhaustion, abnormally high/low blood pressure, low stamina, craving sweet food/drinks, loss/partial loss of sight, back pain, irritable bowel syndrome, allergies and respiratory problems.

You can help to support your child by co-creating a study plan that incorporates regular breaks, exercise and sensible bedtimes. Try and follow the same guidelines yourself so that you are as calm and well rested as possible around your child.

Ensure your child has access to a healthy balanced diet. Reward them with social treats rather than sugary snacks, for example watching a movie together, walking the dog or going swimming with friends.

Let them know that it is okay to feel nervous and help them process their anxieties by sharing your own experience of coping with exam type stress so that they don’t feel so alone. Discourage cramming and encourage good sleep habits by allowing 30 minutes wind down time before bed. Painting, journaling or soaking in the bath will aid sleep far better than staring at a computer screen or smart phone. Also, reducing the temperature of the bedroom to 15-20°C and keeping it clutter free can help promote better sleep.


Top 5 tips to de-stress and increase exam day confidence:

1. Balloon breathing: One of the main symptoms of anxiety is shallow breathing. Whenever you notice your child becoming overwhelmed have them stop what they are doing turn their focus to their breathing. Ask them to take three full deep breaths, inflating their lungs like a big balloon as they breathe in. Encourage them to listen to their breath as they exhale slowly and completely. Spend a few moments consciously breathing with them. With each further in-breath ask say the words, ‘I am breathing in calm’ – and with each next out-breath ‘I am breathing out tension’. This will instantly help them to re-oxygenate and re-energise their blood cells and bring an associated sense of relaxation and increased well-being. Remind them to repeat this ‘balloon breathing’ exercise whenever they feel stressed.

2. Teach your child power phrases: Help your child to train their brain to think positively, overcome anxiety and achieve success by flipping negative self-talk for positive power phrases. Ask your child to imagine what their favourite super-hero would say before battle with an archenemy and have them repeat the phrase – for example “I am strong, I am smart, I can do this”. Get them to write their power phrase on post it notes and stick them all over the house.

3. Help your child feel their fear: What we resist, persists. Help your child to acknowledge internal fear by giving it a means of expressing itself rather than suppressing or fighting it, which will only make it worse. Encourage them to have fun with their fear by shouting all their frustration into a pillow, jumping up and down or shaking their body to discharge nervous trembles or tensing up all of their muscles as tightly as they can, holding for a few moments, then instantly releasing and feeling the tension melt away.

4. Smile from the inside: A positive attitude is contagious. Be positive around your child and teach them to ‘smile from the inside’ whenever they feel low. To do this give yourself permission to be silly with them, then have them imagine a big smile inside their stomach that grows to fill their whole body. Their face will want to smile as a response. Allow your face to smile too. Tell them to do this anytime they need a boost.

5. Visualise success: Spend some time every evening with your child visualising the best outcome that they could possibly have with their exams. Encourage them to create a video in their mind of them studying contently each day, then calmly and confidently sitting their exams knowing that they have prepared as well as possible and are going to do brilliantly. Ask them to focus on imagining the feeling of the sensations of satisfaction flowing through their body knowing that they have done their best. Focus on that satisfaction being the most important factor and have them replay the mind movie often.

*According to a study in 2009 by Buffalo University researchers testing the memory of rats

Jayne Morris is the author of Burnout to Brilliance: Strategies for Sustainable Success and has worked as both a primary and secondary school teacher. She is a resident life coach for the NHS Online Health Sector and is passionate about helping schools, individuals and corporate organisations address and overcome long-term stress.

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