9 October 2020

Feeling stressed or anxious about writing exams is a normal experience for most people. Matric exams (and any exams for that matter) are the culmination of years of learning and the ‘pressure’ to achieve well can add to that stress.

Stress is the body’s way of communicating that you need to remain alert while something significant is happening. A healthy stress response ensures that you are motivated to plan, prepare, and study. However, stress can become a problem when it becomes distressing. Instead of ‘activating’ you to be productive, it can be dysfunctional and prevent you from meeting your full potential.

Some symptoms of dysfunctional stress include:

  • Procrastination and avoidance
  • Irritability
  • Struggling to sleep
  • Problems with your eating patterns (eating too much or not at all)
  • Excessive worrying or racing thoughts
  • Restlessness and feeling on edge
  • Struggling to enjoy fun activities
  • Stomach cramps and head aches

Accepting that stress is a normal response means recognizing that you cannot rid yourself of it during exam time, but you can put measures in place to ensure that the stress does not become overwhelming. This can help to ensure that you remain productive in your studying, and can sit the exam with a clear head.

Here are some tips that may help:

Create a work space

Creating a work space where you can study and prepare ensures that you create boundaries for yourself. Ensure that only studying and homework is done in your work space. This allows your brain to know when it is time to work and when it is time to ‘shut off’. Your brain needs rest just as much as the rest of you, and setting that boundary will help.

Create a routine and schedule

As mentioned before, your brain needs time to rest. You also need time to sleep, eat, shower, and have fun. Creating a routine creates structure for you, allowing you to leave work time and have enough time to rest, connect with others, and enjoy activities. Health is about balance.

Create small 5-10 minute breaks during your study time

Active concentration can be tiring. Pushing yourself to study for hours on end can create a system where you are “studying” but your brain is over-stimulated and so you are not taking in information effectively. Take 5-10 minute breaks every hour or so to revitalize your brain.

Create a sleep routine and stick to it

Sleep is very important for studying. The process of transferring what you have learned into long term memory is done while you sleep. Having 6-8 hours of sleep each night ensures that you can remember what you have learned and keep you refreshed for the long run.

Look after yourself

Stay healthy! Eat balanced meals and shower and get dressed daily. Doing this can help prevent you from becoming run down or becoming ill during the exam period. Eating balanced meals will also ensure that your body and mind are nourished enough. Keep healthy snacks available during your work time and stay hydrated with water.

Burn off that adrenalin

The stress response tells your body to release adrenalin, which was designed for the fight or flight response. Taking time off to be physically active ensures that you burn off that adrenalin. Going for a walk, run, doing exercise, or even dancing can all help to release that tension buildup.

Make room for fun and connections

Appropriate leisure and self-care activities can help fill up your “go tank”. Have a bubble bath, watch a favorite show (no binge watching!), and go for coffee with a friend, spend time in nature, get active with sports, or do arts and crafts.

These can also be small motivators and can be things that are included in your structure to ensure that you have something to look forward to. Self-care activities can be a way to disconnect from stress and sooth yourself.

Here are some ideas of self-care activities

Healthy relationships can be supportive and connections with loved ones and friends create meaning in our lives.

Commit to it

It’s time to DO! Make a study plan, create your space, and commit to doing the “dirty work” of studying. In the days leading up to exams, be sure to confirm the correct timetable, rules for the exam venue, and what you need for each exam so that you are not overwhelmed with other practical aspects the morning that you will write.

By managing your stress around exams effectively, you can experience better mental clarity, less anxiety, and in the long run less chances of other mental health issues. If you are struggling with your anxiety or stress around exams, seeing a psychologist or occupational therapist can help you. They can help you with skills to manage your anxiety better and listen to your stressful thoughts and help you find way to calm them down where necessary. They can also help you with activities that can focus your mind, calm your ‘fight or flight’ response, and allow you to better manage any overwhelming emotions.

Written by:

Manuela Lopes, Clinical Specialist: Research and Development