Exam stress is a feeling of intense pressure that is common for students around exam time such as the HSC. Normally the body’s stress response is intended to protect us from physical danger by switching on the “fight or flight” response. During this stress response, the body releases chemicals that alters the flow of blood around the body and prepares the body to either stay and face the danger head on (‘fight’) or to flee and escape the situation (‘flight’).
However, the problem with this is that the fight or flight response is not only triggered by physical danger (e.g., fleeing from an attacker) but also by psychological danger, such as when we have difficult exams, assessments or class presentations due. In these instances, there is no need to fight an attacker or flee the situation yet the body’s stress response is still activated. As a result, this stress response can have negative side effects impacting upon one’s motivation, concentration and ability.
While too much stress can negatively impact performance, a small amount of pressure is necessary to keep people motivated, focused and performing at an optimal level. For some students, however, when they experience too much pressure for a long period of time, exam preparation and study can seem impossible. Therefore, it is crucial to learn how to manage stress levels so that the quality of school or university work is not compromised and mental well-being is maintained.
Symptoms of exam stress
- Increased heart rate
- Dryness in mouth
- Jitteriness / restlessness
- Difficulty breathing
- Tightness in throat or chest
- Butterflies or sick feeling in stomach
- Hot flushes
- Sweaty or clammy hands and feet
- Tension in muscles/body
- Stomach aches
- Losing touch with friends and the activities you enjoy
- Feeling moody or low
- Sleeping poorly
- Struggling to get out of bed in the morning
- Difficulties getting motivated to start studying
- Feeling confused or having your mind go blank during exams
Management of exam stress
In some instances, individuals may require professional help to learn how to better manage exam stress. This is particularly common for students undertaking their HSC or equivalent, as well as University students. The clinical psychologists at this practice can provide a range of strategies, skills and treatments that assist with the management of exam stress. This may include:
- Having goals are extremely important because it helps people establish exactly what it is they want to achieve and how they will achieve it. In addition, it helps people stay motivated and focused on the task at hand and provides a way of monitoring progress. Our clinical psychologists can work with individuals to create goals that are realistic (i.e., they are achievable given time constraints and ability) as well as specific (i.e., they are very clearly defined so that progress can be tracked).
- A timetable is a really helpful way to keep organised and on top of things. A timetable should firstly have all fixed appointments, classes and commitments scheduled in. This includes all school or university classes, any extra co-curricular activities, sport and work commitments. After all the fixed appointments have been scheduled in the individual should look for any free gaps of at least 30 minutes in which they can schedule study time. Finally, it is important to schedule in regular study breaks as well as social / fun activities to stay motivated and focused. The clinical psychologists at this clinic can help individuals with creating timetables, trialling them out and then adapting them as necessary.
Monitoring thoughts and feelings
- It is important to be aware of the ways in which our thoughts can affect our feelings and behaviours. Thoughts and feelings that are positive are likely to motivate you to perform at your best whilst other thoughts and feelings can lead to unhelpful behaviours. For example, if someone has the thought that they are a failure, it is likely going to make them feel more stressed and overwhelmed which in turn is likely to negatively affect their ability to perform during exams. Our clinical psychologists can work with individuals to help monitor the ways in which thoughts and feelings can affect behaviour and identify any unhelpful thinking patterns that might be contributing to the stress.
- As just discussed, sometimes individuals can think in a manner that is unrealistic or negative and this can leave them feeling low and unmotivated. As a result, some people may need help to modify their thinking so that they feel less stressed and overwhelmed. Our clinical psychologists can help individuals challenge and adapt their thoughts so that they have more realistic expectations. Our clinical psychologists may assist clients to weigh up the facts and look for evidence for and against their thoughts to determine the most realistic interpretation of events. By developing more realistic and rational thinking patterns, the individual is likely to experience more positive changes in their feelings and behaviours.
Addressing avoidance behaviours
- When individuals are stressed they may avoid doing the work that needs to be done and over time this is likely to lead to even more stress. This is known as procrastination and our clinical psychologists can assist individuals to address and overcome these avoidance behaviours. Please click here to find out more about procrastination.
- A beneficial strategy for managing stress is learning how to problem solve. Our clinical psychologists may work with individuals to help them brainstorm all possible solutions to a problem and then work out the pros and cons of each so that the best solution is found.
Establishing effective study skills
- The clinical psychologists at this clinic can assist clients to develop effective study habits. For example, they can help clients with allocating realistic time frames, making lists and breaking tasks down, using a rewards system to assist with motivation etc. In addition, the psychologist can provide several tips and techniques that can help relieve and minimise exam anxiety.
If you would like to find out more about our treatment for exam stress, or to book an appointment with one of our child/adolescent clinical psychologists who can provide strategies for these issues, please email or call the clinic on 02 9438 2511.