Even if you’re doing very well at school, pre-exam jitters – or full-blown anxiety symptoms – are extremely common, and can affect performance. However, there is some good news: with a few small, simple hacks, you can learn to cope with (and even overpower) stressful situations. Better still, these behaviours can be adopted throughout your life: they can help you perform well in all kinds of different situations, from job interviews to personal conflicts, ensuring that stress does not ever prohibit progress.
The first thing to recognise is that though stress feels, well, stressful, it’s not necessarily a terrible thing. Stress, in of itself, is a biological mechanism that has proved crucial to the survival of the human race: it is an instinctive, adrenalised state in which your body is prepared to take action. Being in a state of stress means that you are primed to expend all your energy at once, if needed (if, for example, you are about to flee from a life-threatening scenario, as our ancestors may have needed to).
The problem with stress is this: if we allow our stress levels to escalate, our internal batteries drain pretty quickly. Whilst this stress-induced-energy dump was useful for our ancestors – if needing to put on a burst of speed to accelerate away from danger, for instance – it’s often not an ideal scenario in modern times, particularly if we’re right at the start of a new challenge (like, say, an exam). This energy depletion leaves us feeling exhausted, low in motivation, and not quite ourselves. Learning to dampen stress – and rein in those ‘fight or flight’ reflexes – can be a very valuable tool, therefore.
This first tip might seem obvious – but that doesn’t mean it isn’t true. Sleep is vital, for several reasons. The first is that if you don’t rest properly, you’ll be low on energy, your mental clarity will be impaired, and you’ll be less likely to be able to perform to your best ability. The result? You fall behind with revision, or in the exam itself, and your anxiety levels increase sharply.
The second reason for making an effort to get into a regular sleep routine – at the same time each night, and for at least eight hours, no matter how busy you are – is because the act of sleeping has been proven to reduce exam stress levels. Sleep is a crucial healing mechanism: it’s a period of rest and repair, calming and restoring the body, improving cognitive function, and reducing overall stress levels as a result.
If you find it hard to sleep during busy periods, you’re not alone, but it’s worth making a concerted effort to snooze whenever you can. Take the time to unwind before bed: take a bath, do some yoga, or read a book. Avoid screens or digital devices for at least an hour before trying to sleep, too. The blue light emitted by your smart phone or tablet has been shown to disrupt the body’s natural circadian rhythm, making it harder to naturally fall to sleep.
In times of stress – which, as explored earlier, we often equate with periods of low energy – it’s tempting to skip meals entirely, and reach for sugary snacks, sports drinks or endless cups of coffee instead. This is a mistake. Whilst you’ll enjoy an immediate burst of energy, that will soon fade, causing you to feel depleted, drained, and perhaps reaching for another bar of chocolate (repeating the cycle once more).
Choose your fuel wisely – and make time for proper meals. Pick complex carbohydrates, like sweet potatoes, brown rice or wholegrains, which will provide slow-release energy, as well as healthy doses of proteins and fats to aid cell repair and keep you feeling satiated for longer. Make a real effort to stay hydrated, too: take large bottles of water to your study sessions or into the exam hall with you, and keep sipping throughout the day.
Body language and mental mindset are more entwined than you might think. When feeling depressed or stressed, it’s natural to fold in on yourself; to hunch your shoulders; to frown. However, adopting such postures does not only reflect your mood: it can exacerbate it.
This works in reverse, too: adopting a confident or powerful pose can actually boost your self-esteem and make you feel ready for a challenge. Before facing a new challenge – such as sitting an exam – take a moment to stand up tall, pull your shoulders back, and smile. Holding this pose for just a few minutes will help reduce the sensations of exam stress and infuse you with confidence. Try it!