De-stress to impress

De-stress to impress
Students’ exam stress can be conquered if addressed, writes Hannah Harn


Summer holidays are fast approaching, but students across the country are gearing up for their final exams, projects and leaving certs. For many, this means long days and late nights in libraries and at study sessions with their eyes locked on textbooks, computer screens and notes.

As exams approach, many students find themselves overwhelmed by intense study schedules and workloads. The pressure to score well, either for parents or universities, often leads students down less-than-healthy paths.

6th Year Emma Kinsella, Head Girl at St Joseph’s College Lucan, Co. Dublin, says that she  “definitely struggles to find a balance between healthy lifestyle and study” during exams season.

“I tend to prioritise study over sleep and healthy eating when I have an exam the next day,” she continues. “Even though I know I should not be doing this, I can’t help it. I find it difficult to switch off my brain when I go to bed and struggle with a lot of nervous and anxious feelings.”

When students begin to reach the point of burnout, the symptoms they experience can create needless obstacles in their studying. Exam stress is not only damaging to mental health. It can have a negative impact on a student’s final grades.

“Symptoms might include not being able to concentrate, not being able to start back up again after taking a break, and feelings of avoidance,” says Dr Tamara O’Connor, a Student Learning Psychologist at Trinity College Dublin. “They start to procrastinate.”

Unfortunately, many of these same students prefer not to seek out support, preferring to suffer in silence while continuing to pour all their efforts into revising, reviewing, and rewriting.

According to Dr O’Connor, some students don’t seek help because they are more focused on studying than their own wellbeing while others realise they need help a little late. “They come looking [for help] when they are already in a panic,” she says.

“Students put a lot of pressure on themselves, and there is much more out there in terms of comparison between students,” said Dr O’Connor. “In some ways, if students sought help earlier it would be better. They could implement strategies [to avoid stress] earlier.”

Amid the haze of flashcards and study groups, healthy habits can take a backseat to intense revision, and watching physical health change alongside mental health often adds to students’ stress during exam season. However, there are endless tips and tricks to support positive mental health throughout exam season.

As for stress-prevention study habits, Dr O’Connor offers a few. “Establish a set routine,” she says. “Make a daily schedule or plan it out.” This can help students break down their workload into more manageable pieces.

She also advises putting together a schedule that is more balanced between work and rest. “Plan your study sessions with breaks and in bite-sized pieces,” she says. “Include time for relaxation and exercise.” Spending time with friends, going for walks in fresh air, and taking time to yourself are just as crucial to exam success as studying.

Making the active effort to incorporate these behaviours into a routine can help students maintain a healthy balance, even if it is more 70-30 than 50-50.

According to Dr O’Connor, exam stress can lead to healthy behaviours getting “thrown out the window”. Making the active effort to incorporate these behaviours into a routine can help students maintain a healthy balance, even if it is more 70-30 than 50-50. “Even just 30 minutes [of exercise or relaxation] can be incredibly beneficial,” she says.

When it comes to sitting down to study, one helpful tip is to make your notes interesting. Emma advises using colour and images in study materials. “A full page of black text is daunting to learn from,” she says. “I write up a summarised form using drawings and stories or rhymes. I also love flashcards as they’re an extremely handy way of learning key words in a topic.”

Another study strategy recommended by Dr O’Connor is self-testing in addition to going over notes and lectures. “Don’t just review notes,” she explains. “Practice the retrieval process. It also shows you what you need to focus on.” The self-testing process also helps young people build a sense of confidence and control in the exam environment, which can be crucial in helping to maintain composure in the exam room.

One key aspect of exam success is a better understanding of students’ own effort. Rather than focusing on the quantity of study hours, focus on the quality of work. “Don’t worry about comparing yourself,” Dr O’Connor says. “It’s not about the number of hours [spent studying]. It’s about how you use your time.”

Dr O’Connor also recommends students experiencing stress and anxiety around their exams engage with their parents and peers about their feelings. “Talk to your parents, your classmates,” she says. “Know you’re not isolated.”

Parents play an important role in their students’ study process as well. “Try not to hover, but do be present,” says Dr O’Connor. “Listen to [students]. Encourage a balance. Study is important but so is taking time to socialise and exercise.”

The HSE has similar advice, and recommends students make time for things they enjoy during a break, including watching a short movie or an episode or two of a show they enjoy.

However, one of the most important things HSE advises is leaving stress behind in the exam room. Once you have submitted your paper or handed in your exam booklet, there is no use continuing to worry about it. Let yourself relax and enjoy having finished your exams. Also on their list of ‘stress busters’ are establishing a sense of control and avoiding unhealthy habits like alcohol and excessive caffeine.

One thing they advise is offering to help friends study, even if you yourself aren’t dealing with the stress of exams, or walking with them to the exam room.

SpunOut, a youth-oriented health and wellness site, points out that the support of friends can go a long way. One thing they advise is offering to help friends study, even if you yourself aren’t dealing with the stress of exams, or walking with them to the exam room. Similarly, encouraging friends to talk about how they’re feeling can go a long way to letting them know they’re not alone.

A change of scenery can also be beneficial to studiers of all ages. Instead of staying cooped up in your school library or your bedroom, check out the National Library of Ireland or the Dublin City Library and Archive. Even moving your study session from a cramped bedroom to a small coffee shop or public park can give you the mental boost needed to finish another chapter or write another page.

Overall, reaching out and asking for help is the best way to conquer exam stress. See if your family doctor can help you find the right resource for you. You can also go to your school guidance or counselling office to see what resources they may have and to discuss all your options after exams. If you’re struggling with stress or anxiety in the midst of exam season and prefer a more anonymous source, Samaritans and Childline can also provide support over the phone at Samaritans: 116 123 or Childline: 1800 666 666