Coping with HSC and Exam Stress
- Gemma Gladstone
- June 18, 2020
HSC AND EXAM STRESS: Tips for Surviving and Thriving through the exams.
The last year of high school can be a very tough time, no one can deny that. This year so far (2020) has been particularly challenging and stressful for those students preparing for the HSC and other exams. COVID-19, time off school, disruptions to life, work and study, social distancing, having to stay home for long periods of time, worrying about what the future holds, and much more. All these things posed a uniquely stressful and uncertain time for students this year. It’s been a real challenge and you have done well to get through it so far.
Do you need to set helpful boundaries for yourself around social media or other technology?
Today there are so many more distractions (some good, many stressful) and more information thrown at young people than ever before. With social comparisons and peer-pressure intensified by 24-hour access to ‘life’ as it unfolds on every device imaginable – life can be stressful. But that is how it is today and it is up to you to judge whether these things give you any pleasure or positive feelings or whether they just add to your stress levels. One of the biggest downsides of social media is comparisons. Which can lead to concerns about “am I good enough?” “am I missing out?” etc etc. During this challenging time of life (year 12 and preparing for the Exams), it’s important to think about reducing your exposure to external stressors. There are some things you can control and there are things over which you have limited or little control. You’re probably smart enough to recognise the difference between these and you might choose to limit unhelpful distractions for yourself where you can.
It’s really time to watch your thinking
Are you a perfectionist? Are you putting excessive demands on yourself to reach very high standards? Maybe think about these questions and ask yourself if you have unrealistic or unfair expectations of yourself. It’s very normal to want to do well or to perhaps want to excel at something. Just watch your tendency to worry and watch where your mind leads you? Remember, anxiety and worry are future-focused or future orientated mood states fuelled by fear-based thoughts. If you notice that you are worrying a lot and focusing on the worst case scenario, be mindful and remind yourself that these are only worry thoughts, these are anxious thoughts and they are not necessarily real!
Also remember that your feelings and emotions are normal. It is an anxious time and it’s very normal to have feelings of stress and anxiety – everyone does whether it appears that way or not.
But, when we are stressed and anxious, our minds tend to generate more unhelpful worry thoughts. Our minds can run away and go down all sorts of rabbit holes. This is your mind, it is not necessarily a reflection of reality. There is a saying that the mind is a great servant but a terrible master. We cannot always trust our thoughts, our mind tends to fill in the gaps, look for the negatives and can cause all sorts of fears and distress. You can really scare yourself with your own thoughts. So, watch your thoughts.
Try to get some distance from them by noticing if you are worrying and label what your mind is doing. “This is an anxious thought” or “this is a worry, fearful thought”. When we label what our mind is doing it helps us get perspective and helps bring us back to the moment we are in right now. Remember, you are not your thoughts.
During the exam period
So, you’ve done all the preparation, you’ve even sat your first exam. Well done. Don’t forget, you deserve to do well and you can do well, just give it your best on the day and remember to slow down. Your mind is probably racing a hundred miles an hour. Your thoughts, hopes, fear, worries, and those unhelpful comparisons – you can hardly keep up with them all. Now is the time to slow it all down! Just remember, whatever you hear, think, read and see on whatever device you are looking at, is NOT necessarily true. You don’t know and will never really know how someone else is coping, how well they did and how easy or tough they found the exam. This is all peripheral stuff that’s most likely only going to fuel your worry.
You need to stay connected with people sure, but try not to buy into any of the ‘hype’ of comparing yourself to others – this never really goes well. For now, stay focused on you: your strengths, your health, your diet, your exercise, your exams, your study, your LIFE!
Here’s a few tips that can help you navigate the road ahead. But also remember, this is a part of your life (yes an important part of your life), it’s not your whole life and no matter what the outcome is for you it will not dictate your future happiness or success. There are multiple opportunities and paths you can take to get where you want to go. So slow down, breathe, give it your best, but stay well and with an open mind.
When preparing, reviewing or studying:
- Optimize your environment and get a little organised. Have your desk sorted and clear with just what you need. Make your study space a place you want to spend time.
- Chunk it up. Set yourself chunks of time to work on certain things. Have small set tasks or goals. You need to have a plan for your study otherwise you’ll get too distracted and try to do too much and just get anxious and overwhelmed.
- Factor in those breaks. After you have finished a chunk, have a short break where you move your body or have a refreshment. A short intense walk can send much needed oxygen and blood flow to the brain.
- Eat brain food. Give the sugary breakfast cereal a big miss and go for a high protein breakfast. Make sure you eat as much ‘mind food’ as possible. Things like nuts, berries, cheese, eggs, salmon, chicken, green veges, avocados are going to help get you through. Decrease the sugar, especially on exam days – it’s not that good for your brain!
- Imagine you are there. Relax, close your eyes and imagine calmly being in the exam room and completing the paper. Above all, imagine that you are relaxed, breathing calmly, reading and thinking clearly.
- Get good sleep (8 -10 hours). Call it a day, when you need to. At some point you need to stop for the day. Don’t work in bed! Keep your bed for rest and leave your phone (and whatever other device you have) charging in another room. I know this is hard, but really, your mental health needs a boundary. You need to close off for the night. Try stretches, hot shower or bath, yoga, a relaxation or mindfulness app, essential oils (eg, lavender and orange really work for sleep) and a cup of warm milk (it’s not just an oldwives tale) to relax your body and mind before bed. If you are sleep-deprived, you are much more prone to worry, anxiety and low mood. You really need to prioritize sleep over this time.
- Don’t listen to your inner critic. Don’t worry if you can’t or don’t do the things recommended here. Give yourself a break and watch your inner critic. There’s no need to judge yourself harshly for doing all the so-called right things! Just do what you can and you’ll be okay.
In an exam:
- Remember to breathe. Just take a few minutes to watch your breath. If you need to take a few slow deep breaths to start with then do that. Once they are done, come back to your breath and breathe gently and normally through your nose.
- Be kind to yourself. When things are getting started, notice how you feel. Name your feelings quietly to yourself (eg, I’m feeling a little anxious, I can feel it in my chest”). Even the act of doing this actually sends messages back to the emotion centre of your brain to calm things down. After that, try saying something soothing to yourself by letting your compassionate mind speak (eg, I know I’m feeling anxious, this is pretty normal and it’s okay. I know this feeling will pass soon. I know I can do this).
- When you see the questions, take it slowly and read all the instructions carefully. This is when a lot of students notice a marked elevation in their anxiety. I like the ‘read question – read the piece/or text – read the question again’ approach (eg, like in an English exam or where there is a reading for you to complete before you answer set questions). If you have a worksheet, write key words as you read the piece for example and always highlight key parts of the question as you read through it. Take your time to really understand what is being expected of you with each question. “What exactly is being asked of me here?” Planning a little upfront is usually very predictive of success.
- Multiple choice questions are there to ‘trick’ you. So try this method. A great tip is to always cover the choices first. Read the question before you let yourself see any of the answer choices. When you read the question, try and generate the most accurate answer in your mind first, then allow yourself to see the answer options. This is called the ‘answer generation’ technique which has been proven in educational psychology to get the best results.
After an exam:
- Do something nice for yourself. Have a break and maybe a nice little reward. Take some time to savour it.
- Debrief but don’t ruminate. Sure, get things off your chest but don’t spend a long time talking to your fellow students about the exam. Move on, focus on how you can best prepare for the next exam – think of things you can control rather than worrying about the things you can’t. Talk to your parents and other helpful adults to get things off your chest.
- Take a break before starting on preparing for the next exam. Congratulate yourself for your efforts and getting through the exam. Get some physical exercise – this is really important to manage stress levels. Get some sunshine and do something different, even if it’s just for an hour.
Self-Care is Important
Try and remember to take good care of yourself across all domains of life. Check in with your parents or other people you can talk to and try not to spend all your time in your room. Remember that there are people who care about you and how you are coping, so always seek out helpful, useful people to speak with and share your concerns.
Remember that a certain amount of anxiety and worry is very normal and usually passes once the exam period is over. If you feel that you are so anxious that you can’t focus at all or you are starting to feel down or sad for any longer than a couple of days, talk to your parents about getting some extra help. It might be that a professional can help you with strategies and skills to deal with anxiety or low mood. It’s never too early or late to ask for help.
Finally, Yes, your exams are important. But – they are not your whole life and there will be so many other opportunities and avenues you can take later on. Remember to balance work and study with self-care. Self-care that focuses on both the mind and the body.
Good luck and believe in yourself!