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5 Ways to Decrease Stress & Anxiety During Exams

Table of Contents

Summary

When it comes to exams, it’s common to feel overwhelmed, anxious, and sleep-deprived, especially during midterms or finals when you need to focus on multiple exams at once. Your life can get thrown out of balance trying to fit in all of your schoolwork, socializing, and studying. While it's important to study for your exams, your mental health always comes first, and that's where wellness during exams comes into play.

Finding a Balance During Exams

It’s exam season. Next week, you have four tests to take – two of which are on the same day. You’re feeling stressed and overwhelmed over the amount of studying that you have to do, and you’re worried about whether you’ll be able to keep your prior commitments for the week, such as meeting your friend for lunch. If this situation sounds familiar to you, know that you are not alone.

During midterms and finals week, both otherwise known as exam season, it is common to experience an increase in stress levels and a decrease in positive mood. You may believe exam periods are a time to hunker down and focus solely on studying. But this mindset can lead you to ignore your physical and mental health needs, which can make it harder to focus on and retain the information that you’re studying.

By developing a deeper understanding of exam stress, and uncovering some helpful self-care and coping strategies that you can implement the next time an exam weighs heavy on your mind, you can help to ensure that you do well on your tests, while caring for your wellbeing!

Why do I feel this way?

You may feel stressed about an upcoming test for many different reasons. Some reasons could include worrying that you may fail, feeling unprepared for the exam, believing that you don’t have enough time to study, or feeling like you don’t understand the material that you are studying.

These are just a few examples; you may find that you’re stressed about exams for entirely different reasons. If you’re not sure of exactly why you’re struggling, take a moment to sit with your thoughts, to uncover the root cause(s) of why you’re stressed. By doing this, you will start to understand your experience better, which will help you to explore coping techniques that are the most beneficial for your personal wellbeing.

Signs & Symptoms of Exam Stress

It is important to do regular check-ins, with both your mind and body, in order to recognize when you are feeling stressed. Here are a few common signs of stress to be on the lookout for, but keep in mind that everyone experiences stress differently:

Physical

  • Trouble sleeping
  • Crying spells
  • Muscle tension
  • Upset stomach or indigestion
  • Headaches
  • Feeling sick more frequently than usual

Behavioral

  • Increased use of substances (e.g., nicotine, alcohol, caffeine, etc.)
  • Eating too much or too little
  • Nail biting
  • Skin picking
  • Procrastination

Mental and Emotional

  • Lacking motivation
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Feeling overwhelmed
  • Feeling helpless or hopeless
  • Feeling overstimulated
  • Feeling stressed or anxious
  • Increased irritability

If you are experiencing some of these signs, don’t brush them off! While it can be tempting to “push through” these feelings and experiences, letting them go unchecked can affect your physical and mental health negatively. Consider exploring different strategies that help you de-stress and regain your overall sense of wellbeing.

5 Wellbeing Strategies For Exam Season

It’s safe to say that most people don’t enjoy exams. But if you implement coping strategies, you can de-stress, attend to your wellbeing, and feel better prepared for the tests that you are facing.

1. Eat Nutritious Meals

Before you enter exam season, determine how you will go about regularly eating healthy and balanced meals. While it may be tempting to reach continually for a bag of chips, order fast food, or consume energy or soft drinks throughout exam season, remember that consuming food and drinks with low nutritional values in excess can lead to energy crashes, an increase in hunger, and physical health problems. Limit your consumption of these items, and focus on incorporating nutrient-dense foods (e.g., fruits, vegetables, beans, fish, etc.) to give your mind and the body the fuel that they need to keep going.

2. Don’t Forget to Move Your Body and Rest

Have you ever been studying for a test and suddenly realized that it’s 2AM, and that you haven’t moved in hours? Although you may have gotten a lot of studying done, this is not a sustainable practice. As such, try to develop an awareness around your physical activity levels and sleep habits during exam season. While it may not seem like it, moving your body and getting adequate sleep (at least 7-8 hours a night) are extremely important in maintaining good mental health!

3. Put Your Mental Health First

Grades are important, but you are more important. When you start to feel overwhelmed, take a little break and engage in activities that you find to be relaxing and restorative, such as cooking, watching an uplifting YouTube video, or calling a friend. If you find that you are unable to cope with your negative feelings during exam season on your own, or that your stress is turning into anxiety, consider reaching out to your university’s Counseling Services department for support.

5. Plan Your Days

During exam season, it’s normal to feel as though there aren’t enough hours in the day. As such, a daily planner that you use to sketch out your activities for the day can be beneficial. If you don’t already have one, consider picking one up, or downloading a free planner app on your phone. With a planner, you can map out your days to ensure that all your responsibilities are being met. Remember to include time to eat regular meals and unwind in your schedule!

5. Try Stress-Reducing Grounding Exercises:

There are many grounding exercises that you can use to help alleviate stress. One that may help you is an exercise called 5-4-3-2-1. For this exercise, you use your senses to help bring yourself to the present and to ground yourself. It looks like this:

  • Name five things you can see,
  • Name four things you can touch.
  • Name three things you can hear.
  • Name two things you can smell.
  • Name one thing you can taste.

This is a tried-and-true coping technique that may work for you the next time you’re feeling stressed, during exam season or otherwise. And remember that breathing deeply and slowly also can diminish stress and help you to feel more grounded. If you’re interested in trying more grounding and breathing exercises, consider visiting the Exercises video library in the Oasis app!

Scholarly Sources

Concordia University Health Services. (n.d.). Exam stress. Concordia University. https://www.concordia.ca/cunews/offices/provost/health/topics/stress-management/exam-stress.html

Glowiak, M. (2020, April 14). What is self-care and why is it important for you? Southern New Hampshire University. https://www.snhu.edu/about-us/newsroom/health/what-is-self-care

O’Flynn, J., Dinan, T. G., & Kelly, J. R. (2017). Examining stress: An investigation of stress, mood and exercise in medical students. Irish Journal of Psychological Medicine, 35(1), 63-68. https://www.cambridge.org/core/journals/irish-journal-of-psychological-medicine/article/abs/examining-stress-an-investigation-of-stress-mood-and-exercise-in-medical-students/72931F7F8657801554771CC7E4641086#article

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