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Coping with exam stress

Nurturing

STRESS TEST In the run up to exams, watch out for signs of unhealthy stress levels.

Mental Health

Jannah Walshe

Summer is here, but the lazy days are not quite here yet for students about to start their Leaving Cert tomorrow (Wednesday), or the many college students facing end-of-year exams, or even their finals. With study and revision time now seriously limited, stress levels may peaking.
A certain amount of stress is normal and necessary. It’s what propels us to do what needs to be done. So, if you’re feeling some level of stress at this stage, this is good. Use this heightened energy to focus your mind on any last-minute tasks that need to be done before the exams start. Focused stress can be a powerful tool. However, stress can also have a very negative effect if it gets out of hand.
Watch out for signs of unhealthy stress levels. These can include feeling that the amount of work left to do is overwhelming and impossible to finish; finding it hard to focus on one task at a time and complete it fully; going blank when you try to focus on what needs to be done; being extremely hard on yourself for work that has not been done; starting to panic; feeling your heart and mind are racing; taking quick short breaths or having difficulty breathing;  sleep disturbances; irritability, especially with people who are trying to be helpful; reaching the point where it doesn’t seem worth putting in the effort and so giving up.

Be realistic
If you can relate to any of the above, stress may be preventing you from preparing fully for the exams. As there is not much time left to study, it is important to be realistic about what you can do at this stage. Be careful not to overdo it with last-minute cramming. It is more helpful at this stage to look after yourself both mentally and physically.

Be energy conscious
Try to help your energy levels and ability to focus by getting as much sleep as you can the night before an exam. If it is hard to switch the mind off in order to get to sleep, try to have some wind-down time before going to bed. Watch a funny movie, read a light-hearted book, download and use a mindfulness app or listen to some of your favourite music. The morning of the exam, have a good breakfast with some protein, as this will help keep your energy levels even throughout the whole morning.

Be honest
To help yourself emotionally and mentally, speak to someone you trust about how you are feeling. If you are feeling overwhelmed, say it. Anyone who has been through these exams can relate and may be more supportive than you think.

Get perspective
If you have already given up and it all seems impossible, try to widen your focus and see these exams in the whole scheme of your life. At this stage, it is natural for the exams to overshadow everything else. Everyone is talking about them. Parents are encouraging you to study, and friends are talking about them. But try to remember that even though the exams are important, this is only one phase of your life.
No matter how these exams go or don’t go, there are always options. These may be hard to see at the moment but that doesn’t mean that they aren’t there. After the exams are all over and you have had time to relax, it might be a good idea to talk to someone about what options are available for the next phase of your life.
Best of luck to all students taking exams this year.

Suggested reading: ‘Little book of exam calm’, by Anita Naik; ‘Overcome Exam Nerves’, by Glenn Harrold; ‘How to pass Exams: And how to prepare for them with less anxiety’, by Fred Orr.
Online: www.spunout.ie/health/Education/Exams/Exam-stress, www.schooldays.ie/articles/exam-stress, www.mentalhealthireland.ie/about-us/272-exam-stress-tips, www.helpme2parent.ie/Exams.html, irishpsychology.com/publications/10-tips-for-coping-with-examination-stress/.

Jannah Walshe is a counsellor and psychotherapist based in Castlebar and Westport. A fully accredited member of The Irish Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy, she
can be contacted via www.jannahwalshe.ie, or at info@jannahwalshe.ie or 085 1372528.

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