Expert Nicola Morgan: Planning, relaxation and good stress are key to exam success

As exam pressure looms, Jenny Lee helps young people get a head start when it comes to revision and wellbeing, with advice from Nicola Morgan, an award-winning author and expert on the teenage brain and mental health

Stress is good; too much stress or stress at the wrong times is what is bad

IT MAY only be half-term, but already teenagers across the north, and their parents, are starting to get stressed about summer exams.

Last week internationally acclaimed author and expert in teenage mental health Nicola Morgan spoke to Year 10 and 11 pupils in Belfast about wellbeing and stress management, in an event organised by Libraries NI and Belfast Harbour Commissioners.

Nicola, whose books includes The Teenage Guide to Stress, Study Skills, and Blame My Brain, spoke to students from Glengormley High School and Our Lady and St Patrick's College, Knock, on how stress impacts performance, the effects of social media and general wellbeing in a session designed to provide effective management strategies for both exams and teens' futures.

She was joined by Debbie Hicks from The Reading Agency who spoke about Reading Well: The Shelf Help Collection. This is available throughout Libraries NI branches, providing free access to the 35 book collection which has been chosen by young people and health experts to help support young people with difficult feelings and experiences that can affect their wellbeing.

The books have all been chosen by young people and health experts. They contain information and advice as well as personal stories about dealing with feelings such as anxiety, depression, eating disorders, stress, bullying and difficult life experiences. Some suggest useful self-help techniques, while others are personal stories, graphic novels and fiction.

I asked Nicola for some advice for young people preparing for forthcoming GCSE and A Level exams.

When should students start making a revision timetable for this summer’s exams??The sooner you start, the more opportunities to be in control. Getting the timetable sorted removes a level of worry. So, ideally do it as soon as you know your actual exam time-table (but don't panic if you're later.) The timetable shouldn’t just be about revision, but also about planning relaxation, learning and practising an anti-panic strategy, planning food requirements and improving sleep.

Some parents ban socialising in the lead-up to exams, but you suggest relaxation is an important aspect of revision – why? "Wellbeing is more important than ever when you're really busy and needing top performance. Relaxation is not something that should wait until after exams: it should take place every day. Break up revision time with healthy recreation, including physical exercise, going outside, seeing friends, going on trips and reading for pleasure. Having breaks actually improves learning and brain function and we benefit from making good choices in those breaks.

Should social media be allowed during exam time? ?Yes. There's no good reason to ban it completely. Of course, social media can be distracting; we can use it too much and there are unhealthy ways of using it as well as healthy ways. But if you can be self-controlled and keep your phone and social media out of sight when you're working and manage to prioritise work, there's no reason not to use it in recreation time.

However, if it's making you feel bad or distracting you, put your device completely out of sight. Make sure you get enough physical exercise, sleep, face-to-face chat and that you're on top of your work. After that, social media is a valid treat.

Is too much pressure placed on teenagers at too young an age, with constant examinations and expectations? ?I don't think it's about age. I think most adults would find the pressure huge, too. Yes, I think the exam system is overloaded and the stakes are too high, with society and media putting enormous pressure on teenagers. All we can do as parents is not exacerbate that pressure.

How best can you turn stress into a positive during exams? ?Stress is good; too much stress or stress at the wrong times is what is bad. It's an entirely natural biological process which has evolved to make us super-perform when we need to. If we weren't a bit 'stressed' about an exam, we could be too laid back to succeed. We need adrenalin to push us to do more than we otherwise can.

However, we must try to reduce stress when we are not about to need it and also have strategies to manage feelings of panic.

How do you advise young people and their parents on how to cope with disappointing exam results?

Only when we fail do we get the chance to grow resilience, by seeing if there was something we could have done differently and then picking ourselves up to try again. I advise parents to reinforce the message that exams are not the most important thing in the world. So many leaders in many fields didn't do well in exams. Sometimes, even if you work really hard, things can go wrong. But you can try again, or there's always another route to a fulfilling, successful, wonderful life.

:: For further advice, including example revision timetables and instruction on how to make your own, visit For further information on the Shelf Help Collection, visit or call into your local branch.

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