Life Mental Health

Sunday 17 December 2017

15 simple steps to relieve Leaving Certificate exam stress

As thousands of students are in the midst of state exams Áilín Quinlan speaks to experts about how to manage anxiety so you can perform at your best when put to the test

Exams are a major cause of stress but there are steps you can take to minimise it.
Exams are a major cause of stress but there are steps you can take to minimise it.

Ailin Quinlan

Stress is all about perception, says author and child and adolescent psychologist Dr Patrick Ryan, Head of Psychology at the University of Limerick.

And as the dreaded state exams continue, he says that it's important to understand that we can challenge our perception of a 'stressor' with how we choose to respond to it. "Stressors like exams create different responses in different people. But we are able to control and influence our response to stress," he says.

1 Take Control

Study your exam timetable and make yourself aware of the sequence of exams and how they are spread out. Ensure your family is fully aware of these important dates.

Plan your study location - the place where you work best and without distractions, and eliminate any unnecessary distractions - online or otherwise.

"This keeps things in perspective and helps you avoid catastrophic thinking because you know what's ahead and you're in control," says Betty McLaughlin, President of the Institute of Guidance Counsellors. "Good preparation is about managing time and emotions and organising the big things - it all helps keep you calm."

Leaving Certificate study books.
Leaving Certificate study books.

2 Build Your Support System

This involves the creation of a practical study plan remaining exams and for days between exams.

"The plan should be realistic and achievable - it should stretch you but not stress you," says McLaughlin.

However, don't get caught up in creating sprawling, colour-coded grand plans, cautions Dr Patrick Ryan: "Given how close we are to the exams now, don't waste time," he counsels.

"Stop delaying, stop obsessing, just get down and do it."

3 Trust Your Personal Study Style

"Don't copy the way others study but work out, in the time left, what will work best for you," advises Dr Ryan.

"Are you someone who works best in very short periods of intense study or in longer, more sustained periods of effort?

The Leaving Certificate exams kick off next month
The Leaving Certificate exams kick off next month

"Recall a time when you have learned something very easily and very well. Ask yourself what made that happen and replicate it."

4 Prioritise

Prioritise your subjects and allocate time to revising each subject area, says McLaughlin.

Organise your notes, texts, essays and study resources before you get started.

"All of this reduces your stress levels and helps build resilience by enabling you to stay confident, positive and focused," she explains.

5 Share, Share, Share

"Where possible and useful, work in small groups and share the learning load," suggests Dr Ryan. It's good for reducing the stress, he explains, because it means you won't be in your own head all the time.

Chunk up the work so that you and a small number of peers can actively teach one another and learn from one another through small-group work. Don't sit down and complain, he says.

"Recognise that this work is task-orientated, peer-learning, peer-teaching and peer-support."

6 A Good Routine Fights Stress

"It is easier on you psychologically and physically if you have a good routine to support you - it's about putting a good system into place," explains McLaughlin.

Establish a solid routine by starting your study at a fixed time each day, giving yourself 15 minutes or so to organise your thoughts and notes before you begin, she suggests.

It's also a good idea to rotate the order of the subjects you study each day, she adds, and don't forget to take short breaks - maximum five minutes - between subject areas studied.

7 Information Not Going In? Try This

Plan a house, suggests Dr Ryan, who says he's had good results over the years from using this ancient Greek technique:

Imagine that what you are trying to learn is a story, and that different bits of that story or necessary information, have been placed in different rooms in a big house. When you want to recall the particular pieces of information, walk through the house."

8 Give Your Brain a Break

Your brain works best when it is engaged in a range or variety of activities, says Dr Ryan. Don't spend long hours studying French, for example, and don't spend the whole night studying in long blocks. Take the occasional brain-break: "Look at YouTube clips of funny babies or listen to your favourite rock star for a while. That will allow your brain to let material you have learned settle into your long-term memory."

9 Avoid Sugars and Fats

When you're stressed, your body thinks you're going to be attacked. It immediately starts to crave sugar and fat so that it will have lots of energy to fight off an attack.

If you eat sugary or fatty foods, you are quite literally telling your body to prepare for a fight, says Dr Ryan. "But remember - when you're in a fight, you can neither study or learn."

10 Walk Off Stress

Take at least 30 minutes exercise each day, a brisk walk, a swim or a short cycle. You will feel reinvigorated after it and it will help to relieve the clutter in the brain, says McLaughlin, adding that it's a good idea to take an exercise break after school and before study and again later during evening study.

"Exercise releases the happy hormones like serotonin, in the brain and these help you de-stress and build resilience in the face of a challenge."

11 Don't be Guilt-Tripped

If you have heavy commitments in terms of sports or music for example, work out a schedule with coaches or other interested parties that allows your preparation for the exams to take absolute priority during both the revision and examination period. "Don't allow yourself to be pressured or guilt-tripped into playing matches in the run-up to exams," McLaughlin advises.

12 Sleep Well

Aim for a good night's rest. A cool, well-aired bedroom and fresh sheets on the bed have been proven to aid restful sleep. Avoid phones, social media and online gaming in the hours directly before bedtime. These can prevent you from falling asleep. If your mind is a torrent of racing, negative thoughts, find a mindfulness or meditation app that works best for you. Alternatively, listen to a book or calming music to send you to sleep. Avoid late nights coming up to exam time.

13 It's Good to Talk

If you feel your stress is becoming unmanageable, if you're setting unrealistic goals for yourself, experiencing feelings of hopelessness or your self-belief is flagging, don't bottle it up. Talk to someone who you can really trust and who you know is going to support you. Remember, says McLaughlin: the Leaving Cert will come and it will go. It is one event in your life. It is important but not life-defining.

14 Avoid Stressful People

Stay away from people who engage in catastrophic thinking, advises McLaughlin. Such people can make you feel quite stressed.

"If you know that certain people wind you up, this is a good time to avoid them. Instead, surround yourself with people who are calm and who, thereby, help you to remain calm too."

And, when all around you are losing their heads, remember, says Dr Ryan, that you know more than you think. "You know a lot more than you can ever imagine," he says.

If you think you haven't learned something as comprehensively as you would have wished, remember your brain will probably have picked up more information than you realise, so during the exam, be as cool and as calm as you can - and allow your brain to produce that information for you.

15 Ask the Experts

Seek advice from teachers and mentors on how to get the best out of these last few weeks. These people have been in this process repeatedly, for years.

Do not be afraid to ask them. Do not be afraid to follow their advice, counsels Dr Ryan. Remember, he says: "They've done the work and worn the T-shirt, year after year."

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