Stress & Exam Time: 7 Tips for Ensuring Stress doesn't Cause you to Fail

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When students think about the time around exams, the first word that comes to mind is usually 'Stress!' While it's true that exam time will never be a truly relaxing experience (not if you care about your results, anyway), you can take steps to ensure the stress of exam time helps, rather than hinders, your ability to pass.

This may sound strange, but remember that stress isn't always a bad thing. In our article Stress & Performance, we talked about an optimum stress level. The closer you are to that optimum stress level, the better your performance. The trick is determining what your level is, and not going beyond it, because as soon as you do, your performance starts going downhill quickly.

Too much stress around exam time can manifest as anything from an inability to focus on the exam question and forgetting material you *know* you've learned, through to headaches, cramps, nausea and shaking. None of which will help you manage a good mark in the exam! So how can you manage your stress levels to make sure they don't get in your way?


Most students know that cramming the night before never works as well as setting up a study schedule in advance (and then following it) - but somehow, we end up doing it anyway! Start thinking about what you're going to need to study at least a few weeks (if not longer) before the exam, and set up a timetable for yourself. Use checklists, and cross off each topic once you've covered it. Try different study techniques, and test yourself frequently to identify which ones work best for you.


With so much study to do (or perhaps to avoid doing?), sleep is a common casualty of exam time. It's also one of your best allies for a clear mind, so if you care about your exam results, make sure you don't let it slide. Aim to get 7 hours a night minimum in the weeks leading up to exams (more if you're feeling tired - different bodies have different requirements), and ensure you get an early night before each exam - even if your exam isn't until the afternoon


Perhaps more than at any other time of year, nutrition levels are critical during exam time. Our brains simply can't function optimally if we're not supplying them with enough of the nutrients they need. If you're on any kind of calorie-controlled diet, consider relaxing it a little around exam time, and make sure you're eating plenty of fresh fruit, vegetables and whole grains. Consider a multi-vitamin supplement if you're not already taking one. If you're eating out while you're studying, remember that there are healthy fast-food choices available - it's just a matter of finding them. Eat something rich in complex carbohydrates an hour or two before you go into the exam as well to avoid a blood sugar slump while you're trying to concentrate.


As the exams draw closer, it can be easy to lock yourself in the library (or your room) and not come out for hours at a time. The trouble with this is that when we stop moving, our brains get sluggish. If you want to make sure you're taking in what you study, it's important to get some form of exercise - even just a walk around the block - at least once a day. And if you're starting to feel stress symptoms building as you study, try taking time out for something even more energetic.


There are a number of different relaxation methods available - how many have you tried? Meditation, listening to soothing music, hypnosis audios, burning relaxing essential oils, yoga, t'ai ch'i, hot (or cool) baths, journaling and walking through somewhere green are all possibilities. For more information on any of these, check out our 'Stress Resources' and 'Stress Links' pages; or type the term you're interested in into your search engine of choice and see what comes up


Both before and during exams, oxygen is your friend! Focussed deep breathing is a relaxation technique you can use regularly during the time leading up to the exam, and it's also a great tool to have during the exam itself. When you're under pressure, it's natural for your breathing to start speeding up and getting shallower. Don't let it! Consciously take slower, deeper breaths and watch yourself start to relax, and your thoughts begin to clear as you do.


Most training institutions have some form of student counselling available. Don't be afraid to use them - it's part of what your student fees are paying for! If you're nervous about approaching them (or if your school doesn't have counselling facilities), consider talking to a stress management coach. They're trained to help people deal with stress, and will be able to provide you with guidance and suggestions you're unlikely to be able to access on your own.

(c) Tanja Gardner, Optimum Life Ltd. For more information on how we can help you live your optimum life, please visit
For a copy of our free Stress Audit Questionnaire, please e-mail with 'Stress Audit Questionnaire' in the subject line

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