How to manage exam stress

Living Well | Words: Jane Hutchinson | Images: Getty | Posted on 20 October 2020

End-of-year exams are stressful enough, even without a global pandemic. Here’s how to take the pressure down. 

As millions of Victorians look forward to mid-November with the promise of longer days and, fingers crossed, easing COVID restrictions, the state’s 50,000 VCE students and their families are counting the days to 10 November with trepidation. That’s the date of the VCE English exam, for most Year 12 students the first written end-of-year exam, and the culmination of an unusually stressful year.

Stressed out teenage girl looking at computer screen

The run-up to VCE exams can be stressful in any year, but throw in a global pandemic and you have what mental-health experts are calling “a perfect storm” of distress.

It’s seen as such a make-or-break year that has so much pressure and anxiety around it. It’s a bit of a perfect storm.

The run-up to VCE exams can be stressful in any year with last-minute cramming, worries about study scores and the unnerving feeling that future success hinges on the outcome. But throw in a global pandemic and you have what mental-health experts are calling “a perfect storm” of distress. 

Internationally renowned psychiatrist and founder of youth mental-health organisation Orygen, Professor Pat McGorry, says even without a pandemic, this generation of senior school students were facing unprecedented pressures due to issues such as the casualisation of the workforce, tertiary-education costs and climate change. 

“It’s a challenging period of life,” he says. “You’re trying to work out who you are. You’ve got your whole future in front of you and all those developmental tasks like further education and finding a job have become more insecure in recent years. Then it all comes to a head in VCE. It’s seen as such a make-or-break year that has so much pressure and anxiety around it. It’s a bit of a perfect storm.”

He says just at the time final-year students need strong support around them – in the form of family, friends, school, team sports and other social connections – so much of that scaffolding has been taken away this year. “All those things that a student relies on for support have been put under stress,” says Pat. “The peer group has pretty much been removed with remote learning, families are under a lot of stress trying to manage home schooling or perhaps they’ve lost income. It’s not surprising it’s an extremely challenging year for young people.”

So what can students do to manage stress that, for most, is an inevitable part of VCE exams?

Girl looking stressed out with head on desk while studying
Girl with head resting on desk while studying

Professor Pat McGorry says students may need to cut themselves some slack and reduce their expectations about what they can reasonably achieve given the circumstances.

Adjust expectations

Pat says there is a lot of evidence that practising breathing exercises and mindfulness can help deal with anxiety and stress, as can regular exercise, and keeping up connections with others. But he says this year in particular, students may need to accept they are dealing with unusual circumstances and cut themselves some slack. “They may need to reduce their expectations about what they can reasonably achieve under these conditions,” he says. “It’s like running a marathon. You don’t expect to do your personal best when you’re running into the wind.”

Keep things in perspective

It’s important for students and their families to keep in mind that VCE isn’t the make or break that it can seem in the moment. “There are other routes to a fulfilling life which don’t depend on your VCE score. If you lose a bit of time and need to take a longer route, you’ve still got your whole life ahead of you.”

Stay calm

Child and adolescent psychologist Andrew Fuller, author of Unlocking Your Child’s Genius, says it’s hard to get through years 11 and 12 without at least some meltdowns. But when the inevitable occurs, he says parents can help by staying calm themselves. “Adding an anxious parent to a panicking teenager is always a recipe for disaster,” he says. 

Focus on the fundamentals

Rather than giving them a motivational pep talk or telling them everything is going to be okay, which he says they won’t believe, Andrew suggests working out what the student needs. “Is it food, rest, exercise? Then quietly arrange for this to occur. 

“Generally what you do is more important than what you say. Providing meals, comfort, and for some reassuring hugs, is often more powerful than words,” he says. 

Have a plan

To try to head off meltdowns, Andrew suggests choosing a calm moment to help the student map out a plan that includes time for sleep, relaxation, best times for studying, and other commitments such as part-time work and friends. “Without a plan you are simply left doing what you like when you feel like it, and often, feeling like studying is not the most likely impulse in teenagers’ lives.”

Take regular study breaks

Map out short, regular sprints for learning – ideally 20 to 50 minutes with a 10-minute break between sessions. Andrew says these are more effective than long study marathons.

Stressed out teenage boy looking at computer screen

Some stress in the lead-up to exams is normal, but it's important seek help if it becomes more serious.

Reach out for help

Pat McGorry says it’s quite normal for students to feel some stress in the lead-up to exams. In fact he says stress can help people stay focused and motivated, but too much stress can be detrimental or even dangerous. “If it’s just a bit of mild anxiety, you don’t want to pathologise or over-medicalise it, but if it’s causing persistent distress and lowered mood or withdrawal, or it’s interfering with concentration and ability to study, those are things to be worried about.”

He says key signs that stress might be tipping over into something more serious are an inability to concentrate, trouble sleeping, prolonged periods of irritability or feeling depressed, panic attacks or evidence of self-harm. 

Crucially, Pat says if students are feeling overwhelmed, it’s important to tell someone and seek expert help if needed. “If you’re struggling it’s so important to reach out and tell someone you trust about how you’re feeling, because it could be life-saving. If you can’t talk to your parents then talk to friends or an aunt or uncle or someone else you trust. Confide in someone if you’re finding it too hard because bad feelings will pass. They can be resolved.”

He says services such as eheadspace have made it easier for young people to seek expert help via phone or online, and Orygen is also improving access to its youth mental health services in regional Victoria through a new partnership with RACV . 

RACV general manager social impact and corporate communications, Louise Steinfort, says the Orygen partnership is part of RACV’s broader commitment to helping those struggling with mental health, especially as a result of COVID-19. RACV has also partnered with Lifeline and IAG to provide 8000 tele-health counselling sessions and training for accidental counsellors in communities affected by the pandemic and bushfires.

“RACV has a long history of helping Victorians.” says Louise, “Now more than ever, with the significant disruption to the lives of young people caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, we have a responsibility to support those experiencing mental ill-health.”

Andrew Fuller's top 10 tips for managing exam stress

Everyone gets stressed during tests and exams, says Andrew Fuller. That means everyone has to learn how to cope with these feelings.

  • Acknowledge your stress. Stress might feel unpleasant but it’s your body’s way of revving you up and helping you perform at your best. Realising that will help you keep those feelings in perspective.
  • Write down your worries. Two days before the exam, write down the answer to this question: “What would happen if I fail this exam?” Then answer: “If I did fail what would I do then?” Knowing your fears will help calm you and thinking about what would happen if you did fail will help you make a backup plan.
  • Chew something. If you’re not allowed to chew in the exam, chewing something like jellybeans or fruit just beforehand will help relax you. Chewing sends a signal to your brain that: “If I’m chewing, I can’t be in that much danger, so it’s okay to relax a bit.”
  • Focus on the now. When you’re stressed it’s easy to blow things out of proportion and start worrying about what has happened in the past or could happen in the future. Keep reminding yourself – what do I need to do now?
  • Breathe out slowly. We all have a calm-down system that is controlled by our breathing. If you breathe out and count silently to yourself, “one thousand, two thousand, three thousand”, you will start to feel calmer.
  • Stand proud. Your brain believes what you tell it. If you stand up and maintain a powerful posture, your body sends a signal to your brain that you’re feeling in charge, and it can reduce your stress hormones.
  • Eat a good breakfast. On the morning of your exam eat a higher-protein, lower-carbohydrate breakfast – more eggs, less toast.
  • Drink water. Water lowers your levels of cortisol, the hormone that causes stressful feelings. Avoid energy drinks that will rev you up and may interfere with concentration.
  • Get a good night’s sleep. Even if you are feeling really worried the night before an exam, get to bed at a reasonable time and set an alarm so you can wake up early and do some revision.
  • Keep it in perspective. Remember you have many skills that will not be tested in the exams. Tests and exams are important but they are not the big predictors of success. Do your best and prepare as well as you can, but don’t make the mistake of thinking that your score on an exam predicts your future. 

RACV has partnered with Orygen to support young people in regional Victoria with mental health issues reach their education and employment goals. 

If you or someone you know is struggling with their mental health, contact Lifeline on 13 11 14.