Study stress: Six expert tips for students and parents to help manage exam anxiety
Health experts tell Liz Connor how students can stay calm and relaxed and avoid revision-burnout
STUDENTS across the north are preparing to complete their exams at this time of year. When it comes to acing a test, a little bit of stress can be a good thing – it motivates us to knuckle down, revise and focus – but exams can be a really anxious and high-pressure time too, and it's easy for anxiety to spiral out of control.
The pressure surrounding exams may feel overwhelming, but it's important to keep a sense of perspective and put some tips and techniques into place to ensure you get the most out of your studies, while also looking after your mental wellbeing.
Here, are some tips to help students rise to the revision challenge and walk into their exams feeling cool, calm, confident and collected:
1. Don't try to revise 24/7
It's tempting to try and pack out your evenings with last-minute cramming sessions, but this might not be the most helpful use of your time. "It's unrealistic and will just make you exhausted and fed-up," says Dr Meg Aroll, a psychologist speaking on behalf of Healthspan. "Instead, plan each revision day with an hour of study, followed by a 20-minute break."
During breaks, she suggests leaving your desk, going to another room, running around the garden or listening to some music. "Set a timer and stick to it," Aroll adds, "as the rest breaks will give you the stamina to cover all of your topics and prevent burnout before you sit each exam."
2. Ditch the caffeine for lemon tea
If you're struggling to sleep, try switching out sugary, caffeinated drinks for a cup of herbal tea instead. "A cup of lemon balm herbal tea before bed will reduce stress, anxiety and restlessness and promote sleep," says medical nutritionist Dr Sarah Brewer. "Lemon balm was traditionally known as the 'Scholar's Herb' as it was taken by students to overcome the stress of impending exams."
3. Eat for your brain
When it comes to maintaining a healthy balance, we all know nutrition is key. "Teenagers, especially girls, are not renowned for having the best of diets, which is backed up by food surveys that have highlighted low intakes of key nutrients such as iron, fibre and omega 3, as well as high intakes of sugar," says nutritionist Rob Hobson.
"Parents should note; while you cannot force a teenager to eat well, preparing healthy meals and having nourishing snacks to hand will provide a good starting point, which is especially important when the exam period can play havoc with eating patterns and food choices."
Hobson suggests including lots of brain-boosting omega 3 in meals (think oily fish like salmon and sardines), and if breakfasts are a challenge, try whizzing up a healthy smoothie packed with fruits, veg and oats.
4. Stay hydrated
Getting the most out of a revision session could be as easy as keeping a cold glass of water by your side and remembering to take regular sips. "Dehydration can make it difficult to focus and leave you feeling fuzzy," says Hobson. "Opt for water flavoured with fruits over sugary drinks, and snacking on fresh fruit can also help hydrate and add extra nutrients to the diet."
5. Try breathing exercises
High expectations can put a great deal of pressure on students, especially those who want to do really well. "A good way of dealing with stress is to try deep-breathing exercises," says Aroll. "By breathing through the diaphragm, rather than the chest, the parasympathetic nervous system will kick in and the physical symptoms of stress, such as a pounding heart, breathlessness and feeling faint, will soon diminish."
With one hand on the chest and the other on the belly, try taking a deep breath in through the nose, ensuring the diaphragm (think of it as the bit below your chest at the top of your abdomen) inflates with enough air to create a stretch in the lungs. Hold it for four counts, and then release through the mouth.
6. Finish off a study session with a warm bath
As well as being super-therapeutic, soaking in hot water raises your body temperature, increasing the production of melatonin and better preparing you for sleep after a long study session. As an added tip, Brewer suggests topping up your water with Magnesium Soak Bath Salts (from £9.99, healthspan.com) to induce slumber. "These are absorbed through the skin and have a relaxing effect on muscles to promote a deep, refreshing night's sleep," she says.
Remember, if you're feeling overwhelmed or finding it difficult to cope with exam stress, talking to a trusted friend, family member of teacher could help. Or for more advice, visit mind.org.uk or call the Mind Infoline on 0300 123 3393.