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Coping with effects of exam-time stress

It's been many years since I did my Leaving Cert but the mere mention of it still brings back vivid memories; the stress, the worry, the dozens of study timetables I wrote out instead of doing any actual study.

At this stage in my life, I can look back on it and know the truth of the words: 'It's not the end of the world.' It's really not, and I'm proof of that. I wanted to do journalism in college but didn't get the points after two tries so I ended up doing an Arts degree.

I was devastated not to get into the course I wanted, but the path my life took ultimately led me to work on one of Ireland's biggest women's magazines, edit an award-winning website and now, as a card-carrying freelance journalist, I continue to write for great publications.

My dream career found me anyway and no one has asked me what marks I got in the Leaving Cert since I was about 19.

Still, the next few weeks will undoubtedly be a very stressful time for thousands of Irish people and their families as the Junior and Leaving Cert exams get underway. Derek Chambers is director of programmes and policy for Reach Out (www.reachout.com) a free online resource, part of Inspire Ireland, that offers help and advice to young people.

He explains: "Stress can be positive, helping you to stay motivated and focused [for study]. However, too much can make you feel overwhelmed, confused, exhausted and edgy. It's important to try and keep things in perspective and find ways of reducing stress if things seem to be getting on top of you."

When it comes to study have a good, quiet area to work in. Make sure there's adequate light (to avoid eye strain) and keep it tidy so you don't waste time looking for things. Make a study timetable and try to stick to it. If you're revising don't just re-read notes, try to learn more, make summaries of points as you go.

Find out about the exam; how many questions, what kind of format they will take, what portion of your overall mark it counts for etc. Double check times and where the final exam will be held, too.

Don't forget your down time is as important as study time. "It's important to have regular study breaks and time for relaxation and exercise," Derek explains. "Going for a walk, to the cinema or the gym is not a waste of time, it's a great way to clear your head and help you study better."

Avoid stimulants such as coffee, energy drinks or caffeine pills. They only provide a temporary lift before you crash again and can hinder both sleep and concentration. Instead, try some light exercise or, if you're getting stressed, burn some aromatherapy oils or try homeopathic supplements. One exam-time favourite is Bach's Rescue Remedy (€8.85). It was developed in 1934, and is a blend of five specially chosen flower remedies. Widely used to calm nerves and aid concentration, it's been a staple in our house for years and I think it does help with 'the fear'.

One calming technique you can take into exams with you is pressing on the Li4 pressure point, on the soft fleshy bit of your hand between your thumb and index finger. It's good for calming and can help with headaches. Or simply take time to breathe: give yourself a minute and breathe in for a count of four, hold for one and breathe out for five.

External pressures around exams can be huge and while some people do okay in exam season others really have a hard time. One of Reach Out's key messages is for people to look after themselves and keep an eye on their peers too. Derek says, "If you're worried about someone and you're worried for a good reason, don't ignore it. Checking in with someone at an early stage helps to prevent problems."

"It doesn't need to be complicated," he adds. "People don't always need to head in the direction of their GP or the Samaritans. Some people will need that, but just reaching out to somebody can make all the difference in the world."

The Irish Pharmacy Union (www.ipu.ie) has come up with a 'Safe Code' to help students cope with conditions that may turn up during exam time. It's not just headaches and lack of sleep, stress can result in flare-ups of on-going conditions such as asthma and eczema. The IPU safe code offers lots of practical advice for tackling these ailments:

Stomach upsets

Avoid spicy foods or foods that you know don't agree with you. Eat small amounts regularly. A glass of milk or peppermint tea can be good for stomach upsets. If the problem persists, you should seek products such as Motilium from your local pharmacy.

Diarrhoea or constipation

Stress can cause disruption to a student's digestive system which could result in diarrhoea or constipation. If a student is constipated they should drink plenty of water and eat fruit and high-fibre foods. For diarrhoea, make sure to keep hydrated. There are products, available from pharmacists, which help to replenish vital vitamins and minerals.

Asthma

Be extra vigilant in using inhalers correctly. Your pharmacist can advise you on improving your inhaler technique. Preventative inhalers should be used regularly. Make sure that you have an ample supply of inhalers and carry an inhaler with you at all times so it can be used during the exam if required.

Eczema

Stress can cause eczema to flare up. Keep the skin well moisturised with the cream prescribed by your doctor. Wear loose-fitting clothes that won't aggravate the condition and cause the skin to itch or flare up further.

Cold sores

If you feel you may be getting a cold sore, apply a preventative cream as soon as possible and reapply regularly. Wash your hands thoroughly after applying the cream to avoid the cold sores spreading. Wear a lip balm which contains sun factor to protect your lips when outdoors between exams.

Insomnia

Avoid caffeinated products such as energy drinks, tea and coffee. Take some light exercise or other activity such as having a bath or shower in order to relax before bedtime. Don't study in bed as the brain will become over-stimulated. Set aside a period for relaxing during the study schedule.

Muscular and joint discomfort

Posture is very important in avoiding muscular discomfort. It is important to have a chair that will provide good back support and that your desk is laid out well. Avoid crossing legs or slouching over a desk. Take frequent breaks when studying, walk around for a few moments or perform some light stretches. For students in severe discomfort lumber supports and wrist rests can be helpful.

Hay fever

Those who suffer from hay fever should take steps to ensure that the condition does not flare up during their exams. Simple steps can include keeping doors and windows closed in mid-morning and early evening when pollen levels peak and avoid lying on the grass. Apply a little Vaseline inside the nose to help reduce symptoms. If you need to take antihistamines, make sure that you take ones which don't cause drowsiness.

Finally, make sure you eat regular, well-balanced, healthy meals. If you feel it is necessary during this stressful time, you can supplement your diet with a multi-vitamin to prevent you getting run down.

Reach Out www.reachout.com Inspire Ireland www.inspireireland.ie Childline www.childline.ie, or call 1800 66 66 66 Samaritans www.dublinsamaritans.ie or call 1850 60 90 90


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