Exercise, study techniques and a balanced diet can keep students calm, writes Nathalie Marquez Courtney
A little stress is a good thing. It has the power to motivate and stimulate us, pushing us to do better, triggering our adrenaline and keeping us focused. Without stress, life would be dull and boring.
Exam stress has often been likened to the curtains rising on a stage in front of a packed crowd – to the trained actor, it causes an adrenaline kick that helps them come alive, giving a performance far superior to the dress rehearsal. To an untrained punter, the exact same situation will cause cold panic, causing them to forget even the simplest sentences.
Not knowing how to manage stress, particularly during exam time, is what can cause the dreaded cold sweat as the papers are handed out. Many students have been coasting on stress for weeks, and, come the big day, are utterly exhausted. Their fight or flight response has been constantly triggered, leaving them feeling frazzled and overwhelmed.
"When high stress levels are sustained, the person fails to get off the adrenaline rollercoaster," explains nutritionist Nicola Murphy. "Essential nutrients are depleted and the hormone cortisol is released to help the body adjust to the stressful situation."
Over time, this can be quite harmful to the body. Energy levels become erratic, sleep is fitful and disrupted and anxiety levels steadily rise. The immune system also becomes suppressed, making students susceptible to colds, coughs and infections.
The run-up to exams creates the perfect environment for prolonged stress levels. However, if students know how to handle stress in the right way, sitting down at the desk come exam time needn't be such a traumatic experience.
Stressed-out students usually find themselves craving two things: salt and sugar.
"The production of stress hormones in conjunction with other brain chemicals produced during times of intense concentration and learning can send them scrambling for the chocolate bars and crisps," says Nicola. Energy slumps tend to follow the initial high from sugary, fatty foods, creating an incredibly unhealthy cycle.
Regular, well-balanced, fresh meals are essential for combating stress. Encourage students to swap crisps for popcorn, milk chocolate for dark, and to try healthier, tasty snacks, such as peanut butter spread on oatcakes. "When sugar cravings kick in, fresh fruits such as strawberries, blueberries and pineapple can hit the spot," adds Nicola.
Fish is particularly important, as the omega 3 oil it contains helps to boost memory function and concentration. For people who struggle to eat fish, Nicola recommends taking an omega 3 supplement such as Eskimo oil. "It has high levels of DHA, which will provide all the benefits," she says.
Creating a calming routine can help students stay level-headed and focused once they enter the exam hall. This can include fitting in a 30-minute walk the morning of an exam, which will boost the body's production of happy chemicals and aid relaxation.
Once the exam has started, practising deep breathing can also be a huge help, as it increases oxygen levels and helps you focus. "Sit still, eyes closed if you like, and count to 20," advises guidance counsellor Betty McLaughlin.
"Take really deep breaths, where you fill your lungs to capacity, and exhale slowly and gently through your mouth." She then recommends starting with your 'best' questions.
"As you complete questions, your confidence increases and stress lowers so you are more in control when you come to answer the more challenging questions."
Holistic aids can also play a role. Nicola recommends nourishing the nervous system with a good vitamin B complex, which can also help boost energy levels. Exam favourite Rescue Remedy is still a popular choice. "Adding a few drops into a bottle of water to sip during exams will help students remain calm," says Nicola.
Not everyone learns in the same way, and discovering what learning style best suits you can boost how much information you absorb. The most common learning style simply involves active listening and note-taking.
However, some people are very visual, in which case aids such as pictures, charts, drawings and even doodles can be a big help. Others benefit most from repeating information aloud and creating rhymes and mnemonics (ie, "30 days hath September . . .") to help jog their memories, while kinesthetic learners work well when they're doing what they're learning and creating actions around their study.
Mixing and matching techniques from each of these learning styles to suit different subjects can break up study sessions and help students retain more information.
Knowing what you're facing and how you're going to tackle it is just as important as the content you have studied. Sites likes www.mocks.ie give students access to free resources like old exam papers and timetables. "Students should get familiar with things like paper layouts, the time to allocate to questions and interpreting questions," says Betty.
"This way, some of the fear factor and stress is minimised before they take the actual exam paper."
Another Irish website, www.clevernotes.ie, created by the Folens publishing group, offers a subscription-based service that uses custom-designed multimedia and interactive features to aid study, and provides tips and advice from teachers and examiners.
When you're in the midst of exams, it can feel like that's all that exists. It's important to remember that exams aren't an end in themselves, but rather a gateway to another stage of your life.
"Exam success is important, but it's not the only way to get to where you want to go with your career or study," says Betty. "All that anybody expects is that you do your best, put in the extra work in the run-up to exams, and enjoy your well-earned summer holidays!"