Exam season is fast approaching for university, college and school students across the UK. Increased workloads, pressure to succeed and the number of hours spent studying can lead to enhanced stress levels among students, which can have a detrimental effect on their health and performance.
The ChildLine National Exam Stress Survey (2014) revealed that 96% of the 1300 students questioned felt anxious about exams and revision, with 59% citing the pressure to do well as one of the primary triggers of stress.
When it comes to preparing for exams one of the simplest and most effective tactics to reduce stress is ensuring you’re getting enough rest. Giving your body and mind a chance to relax and recuperate will not only improve concentration, but will also help to reduce anxiety.
Silentnight’s resident sleep expert, Dr Nerina Ramlakhan, has compiled her top tips for helping students prepare for exams and lower stress levels:
1. Avoid nutritional stress
Eat healthily and stay well hydrated. Snack healthily to maintain blood sugar levels so that your brain is able to absorb information. Avoid caffeine after 2pm so that you can optimise sleep quality.
2. Take regular breaks
Our ability to concentrate runs in cycles of roughly 90 minutes. After this time the working memory in the prefrontal cortex shuts down and we stop retaining information. Even a 5 – 10 minute break can help to ‘unload’ the working memory so we come back to the task with renewed focus. Get up and move around, eat a piece of fruit, avoid checking emails and going on the internet – the aim is to give your brain a complete rest.
3. Engage a different part of the brain
Give yourself a break by doing something totally different with your brain such as juggling, using a hula-hoop or even playing darts. Again, it helps to empty the working memory.
4. Get good sleep
Practice good sleep hygiene; wind down before you go to bed by reading or watching something easy. Don’t study in bed and try to have at least one hour free from technology (Facebook and Twitter included) before getting into bed. Learn how to power nap. Researchers have shown that even a 5 – 10 min power nap at some time between 2pm and 5pm can significantly enhance cognitive performance.
Pay attention to any ‘unusual’ symptoms that have started to pop up such as headaches, insomnia, IBS, appetite changes, skin problems, tearfulness, anxiety or depression. These could be signs that you are not coping.
Get some support. Who can you talk to? Make sure you have good support strategies, which might range from going to the gym and letting off some steam, to talking to a close friend or relative or keeping a journal.
7. Take a deep breath
If you find yourself feeling overwhelmed and anxious, stop whatever you are doing, put your bare feet on the ground and take a deep breath from your belly. As you exhale, imagine you are blowing out a candle flame and make the exhalation long and slow. This immediately has a calming and stress-relieving effect.
8. Practice ‘the worst possible scenario’
We can become overwhelmed when we don’t allow ourselves to confront the anxieties and fears lurking around in our subconscious. So bring them into your conscious mind by getting a pencil and paper and brainstorming all of the things you are afraid might happen if things don’t go the way you hope. Really use your imagination even if it feels a bit ridiculous. And then ask yourself: “Could I live with this outcome?” Or, “what could I do if I don’t pass this exam?” Again, write out every possible alternative option you can think of and build contingency plans.
9. Manage perfectionism
Recognise your limits and know when you are going over them. If possible, set yourself realistic targets, learn how to ask for help and learn how to say no when the pressure starts to reach unhealthy levels. Stop being so hard on yourself!
10. Positive strokes
Acknowledge when you’ve done something well and give yourself something to look forward to every day – even if it’s something small like taking time to listen to your favourite upbeat piece of music. Stay optimistic even when things look bad and take time out to notice even the small things that have gone well, e.g. getting a seat on a train, a nice cup of tea or a nice text message from someone. Research shows that people who practice this sort of exercise are healthier and more able to cope with stress and adversity.