Are you revising for your exams? Tough, isn’t it?

Everyone wants you to do well; some, including yourself, expect you to shine. Unfortunately, the pressure this puts on your to succeed builds up the closer you get to the exam.

Stress is something that everyone encounters throughout their academic, professional and personal life. The purpose of this article is to explain what stress is, how to recognise that you're under stress - it can manifest in many different ways, and how to reduce its effects so you can persevere and succeed.

Stress is usually perceived as a negative but, like all supposedly damaging emotions - including fear and anger, stress can be both a powerful motivator and an impetus for change. Healthy stress can drive us to complete a task or perform a task to an excellent standard.

There is another kind of stress, though, the kind that overwhelms and disrupts our ability to think, act or perform to the best of our ability. Non-productive stress often makes its presence felt when we least need it to: during the already tension-filled season that is exam time.

You can adopt one (or more) of many strategies to stop stress from numbing your mind and from reaching such great proportions that it can cause anxiety or even full-blown panic attacks.

If you've failed an exam recently, you may be at a greater risk for stress and anxiety. These tips will help you manage stress better for your next round of exams - or just in general.

Understand the Cause of Stress

Your parents stress over how they would pay for a major, unexpected expense (and a sudden, devastating illness, and losing their job...). You stress over how well you will do on your exams (and what the future holds for you, and how you will balance your dreams against your reality...). The whole world stresses over nuclear war, food shortages, climate and the environment, COVID…

No matter who’s doing the worrying or what the worry is, a common thread unites them all.

At the heart of every stressor lies a single fear: what will happen to me?

Stress is fundamentally fear
Facing the fear that causes stress is the best way to manage stress Image by Anemone123 from Pixabay

That doesn’t mean that humans are all selfish creatures. Our instinct for self-preservation demands that we ensure not just our survival but our continued development and progress, too. This biological imperative forces us to confront anything that might threaten our lives and advancement.

There, neatly explained: what stress is and why we stress. How we deal with our stressors (fears) makes all of the difference. One may:

  • Ignore them: pretend there is nothing to worry about in the hopes that all will turn out well in the end.
  • Become overwhelmed by them, to the point that this fear blocks out any possible course of action or avenue of escape.
  • Take control of them by recognising the fear for what it is, putting it into perspective and taking proactive measures against it working against us.

All of those students who spend the week before exams cramming, who no doubt spent the months they should have been preparing for their ordeal doing everything but preparing… they’re the ones who’ve ignored that they’re facing the greatest challenge of their academic career.

Those who flounder in their studies, first picking up this book and then that one, who are found, an hour after their self-proclaimed study sessions started with earbuds jammed in and scrolling through social media… they’re likely overwhelmed by the enormity of the task at hand and what it represents for their future. Essentially, they’re escaping.

Those who take control have confronted their fears and harnessed them. They have put things in their proper perspective and keep stress at bay by taking action. There may occasionally be bouts of panic but those who have taken charge of their situation let moments of panic wash over them, coming out more determined than ever on the other side.

There, we see how stress and fear can be beneficial.

Short Bursts of Stress Can Be Good

A recent study has found that short bursts of stress can help us focus and improve our ability to perform cognitive tasks.

The important word here is short; chronic stress produces premature ageing and cellular damage. Productive stress is the kind that pushes us to study harder as exam time crops up, motivates us to improve on past results and leads us to concentrate harder on our main goals.

Remember that, short of dying, you’re going to live through everything you encounter. As long as you do it with dignity, determination and to the best of your ability, you have nothing to worry about.

You may find the following tips useful to stay calm and do your best in your exam.

Get organised

Making a plan and sticking to it are the first two steps in combating stress, no matter whether you're preparing for SATs, GCSEs or any other ordeal life may throw at you.

First, determine what has to be done. Once you've written an outline - maybe you listed which subjects you will test in or the degree of preparation you should take, rank those tasks from most to least important, most to least demanding, most to least difficult...

As an example, we present a secondary school student preparing for their school-leaving (college entrance) exam. S/he intends to study Art and Design at the undergraduate level; however, their exams include mandatory maths and science sections.

Math would never be a 'best subject' for this student but it is nevertheless important to get good marks, lest s/he be denied entrance to their desired study programme. Logically, s/he has to devote more time to maths to make sure s/he earns the needed marks even though math has almost nothing to do with their proposed degree plan.

Now, it's time to schedule your study sessions. Our hopeful art student might conclude that s/he needs to spend one hour, twice per week, getting math fundamentals down and 30 minutes per day reviewing art history and English.

However, you set up your study schedule, make sure it reflects your strengths, weaknesses and priorities... and don't forget to schedule some free time, too. You can't study all of the time without risking burnout!

Remember: all of your study goals depend on taking small steps daily, not one giant leap the day before exams.

A final note on getting organised: identify the causes of your non-productive stress and then, fix them.

Is it an inability to study properly because there is too much noise or activity at home? Try studying at the library or at your school's study hall, if there is one.

Is it your own failure to craft a strict study plan or revise regularly? Try taking a one-day-at-a-time approach; you could also study with friends (see below for more). Would you consider hiring a tutor to get you on-track?

Are there other, deep-seated reasons for your stress, such as a fear of failure or a lack of self-belief?

To identify what's holding you back despite all of your carefully-laid plans, you might talk with your parents, teachers or school counsellor; even a mental health professional might do you some good. If nothing else, talk with your friends - hopefully, ones whose organisation skills you admire.

Waiting for your exam result? Read our article on how to do so the right way.

Studying in groups can help lower stress
Joining for forming a study group is a great way to keep stress at bay Image by StockSnap from Pixabay

Learn With Friends

Any situation is more difficult to face when you feel isolated and alone.

In the quiet of your room, it is much easier to credit uncertainty and believe in your imminent failure. By contrast, among like-minded peers working toward the same individual goals, you will feel empowered and competent; ready to tackle both that day's study session and the exams, when they finally roll around.

Peer learning is a modern educational initiative which supports a student-centred philosophy that embraces knowledge sharing as a platform to build confidence and embrace different points of view.

Another good reason to set up a study group is to avoid procrastination; with everybody counting on everyone to keep up, you won't be able to slack off in your studies!

To make sure you get the best out of your study group, you should choose students who are as dedicated to the task as you are. If your best mate could aptly be described as the class clown, extend an invitation to join the group only if s/he will be as focused as the rest of you will be.

You don't have to declare yourself the group's leader - that might cause more stress; in fact, you don't even have to form your own group if your school/class has already-established study groups. However, you all have to set some rules for optimal learning.

Where and when you will study together are prime considerations, followed by the group's study schedule - how long will you spend on each topic and when will you take your breaks.

You don't all have to study the same subjects to function as a group; the main purpose of group-study is to prevent feeling isolated and bolster confidence, sharpen study skills and not put your studies off.

Take a  Break Out of Doors

Getting outdoors helps us to clear our head. Contact with nature can help us recover from illness, alleviates stress and reduces aggression and violence. Various studies reveal that people’s stress levels decline within minutes of contact with nature.

Even short walks can keep stress at bay and induce positive feelings. Moreover, those living in green environments are more capable of dealing with tense events and stress than those dwelling in urban surroundings.

Even if you have only an hour a week to spare, spend it in nature; both body and mind will soon reap an array of benefits.

Take Exercise

Exercise will not only improve circulation throughout your body, it will also bestow countless health benefits.

Exercise helps to relax your body and mind, reducing levels of stress hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline. It also stimulates the production of endorphins, potent mood-boosters.

For maximum benefit, aim to exercise for at least 30 minutes every day and try to do both cardiovascular and strength (weights-based) exercises. If you find that time is pressing, try short but intense workouts like CrossFit or Electro-Muscular Stimulation (EMS).

Both these workouts take just 20 minutes and are said to be equivalent in effect to an hour-long workout but, if you're not a fan of regimented workout routines, going for a brisk walk, a run or a nice bike ride would work well, too.

Are you struggling with exam failure? You may want to read our article on the topic; it is sure to help you.

Avoid Stimulants

When people think of stimulants, anything from performance-enhancing drugs to Red Bull comes to mind. Those should be avoided at all costs, at all times, at any point in your life.

That goes without saying but what about stimulants commonly found in everyday food and drink?

 Processed foods and fizzy drinks (can) contain high amounts of salt and/or sugar.

Too much sugar causes blood glucose levels to spike, but then causes a dip in your energy levels once the sugar is metabolised. Instead of a biscuit or cake as a snack, stick to low-glycaemic index (G.I.) fruits instead; these release energy in a slower, longer-lasting burn. Some of the most delicious low-G.I. fruits include strawberries, apples and peaches.

As for beverages, water is always your best bet. If that doesn't suit you, try dressing it up with a few ice cubes, a slice of fruit or a few drops of lemon/lime concentrate. Save the fizzy drinks for the weekend, and then, limit yourself to only one can or glass.

Those prone to anxiety attacks should be especially wary of stimulants like caffeine, which, taken in excess, can cause everything from an accelerated heart rate to insomnia. That takes most coffees, colas and even some teas off the table. Also, note that chocolate has a fairly high caffeine content; the darker the chocolate, the higher the caffeine.

Another side-effect of caffeine: it will rob you of sleep. Getting a good night’s sleep is crucial if you are to stay calm and focused during your exams.

Avoid Negativity

You are not superhuman, nor does anyone (seriously) think you are or should be.

It's okay to take a little time from your studies as long as a five-minute study break doesn't turn into two hours and a night off doesn't turn into a week away from your notes and books.

Don't let anyone call you a slacker (or worse!) for taking a few minutes away from your books and don't try to convince yourself that you are a monumental failure for not grinding away.

Everybody is their own worst critic; the danger of putting down your study load too often and for too long is that you might beat yourself up for anything from being weak-willed to... (insert insult here). Such negativity can become a vicious, self-perpetuating cycle - a defeat mechanism to be avoided at all costs.

If you are active on social media, you might want to scale back on that passion a bit, too.

Research shows that social media can have a negative effect on a person's life, especially if that person experiences bullying and/or battles self-image issues. Various platforms actively work to create unrealistic expectations for their audiences, something that could send you down a rabbit hole of envy and despair . It would be best to minimise any such influences.

What about the negative people in your life?

Those who constantly compare their results to yours, casually mention disturbing information or rumours that may cause you to panic, or generally make you feel unhappy should be avoided. Surround yourself with positive people around whom you can feel good about yourself and with whom you can laugh.

Indeed, humour is one of the most efficient stress busters there is since it puts things in perspective.

Attitude is everything; make sure yours is balanced
You have to consider the good and difficult aspects of exam-taking to get your attitude right Image by Alexas_Fotos from Pixabay

Look on the Bright Side?

Just about every culture has a series of idioms and adages that advocate for seeing everything in the most positive light possible; this segment's header is a case in point.

The practice of looking on the bright side of things certainly has its advantages, the main one being that you don't have to look very hard to find something good, even in a bad situation. On the other hand...

Keeping one's focus solely on the bright side of things means that the dark side of things gets ignored. Another popular idiom, every coin has two sides illustrates the point perfectly.

If you look only at one side of a coin, you fail to see the other side.

We're not trying to shoot giant holes into the ultimate optimist concept so much as advocating that you should see both the positive and negative of any situation. More importantly, you should accept both the positive and negative aspects of any situation.

Yes, your upcoming exams will be difficult and you might fail. On the other hand, you will have successfully confronted the ordeal - regardless of the outcome, and you did your level best.

You must confront both the good and the bad of exam-taking.

Even if you suffered from a mental block while taking a written exam or froze up during an oral exam - both decided negatives, being prepared for those possibilities will allow you to pick yourself up and carry on which, in turn, will permit looking back at your moment of panic with humour.

Stress and fear are emotions that take hold of everyone at some point in their lives.

Usually, the outcome of a stressful situation (exams, public speaking etc) is not as bad as our imagination led us to believe. Ultimately, even if the worst-case scenario did take place, it wouldn’t be the end of the world.

Your voice is needed: how do you recommend combating stress while waiting for your exam results?

Reward Yourself

Studying for a life-determining exam is no lighthearted task.

The thought that a poor exam result could bar you from your higher education aspirations and the career you want is can be paralysing; that is why so many students, all over the world, focus on their studies to the exclusion of all else.

Targeting an objective so single-mindedly could result in the exact opposite of the desired outcome. For one, such students usually enter the testing room nervous and unsure of themselves despite all of their studying.

And, for all that they deprived themselves of time with loved ones, having fun and getting exercise, they scored no higher than their peers who did enjoy life outside of studying - another indignation for them to bear, on top of their lower-than-expected scores.

Animals in the wild seek food but they do not eat constantly and to the exclusion of all else. We have to work to earn our living but we do not work around the clock, to the exclusion of all else. Students must study but they cannot do so to the exclusion of all else.

One way to ensure you are not unduly depriving yourself of normal life is to break up a large body of work into smaller, more digestible chunks and tackle them, one per day throughout your course, as you continue to interact with friends and family.

And don't forget to set rewards for yourself for each study goal you complete!

Besides those small treats, many students dream up one big reward, to be claimed after exams are over - maybe camping with friends, a trip or a fun activity like skiing, canyoning or deep-sea diving.

The greatest reward, of course, is the sense of achievement that comes from being consistent, committed and courageous - in studying and in living.

We hope that you have found these tips useful in managing stress as you revise for those exams. We would love to hear your tips, please feel free to share these with us via the comments.

Coping with exam failures may be difficult. But, you can handle the situation better if you read this article - how to cope with failing your exams.

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Krishna