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Exam Fever & What to Do! – Dealing with Exam Stress

This week on Wednesday the State examinations began; yes it’s that time of year again when so many homes all around the country are caught up, with what may seem a never-ending succession of Paper 1 this, and Paper 2 that.  I still remember my own Leaving Cert back in the day and am even now, all these years later, the victim of a recurring nightmare regarding same, but more of that anon!

It’s a fact!

Exams like death and taxes are a fact of life for most people and can be a very stressful experience, not only for the students themselves but also for their parents.  The passing of these tests sometimes seems to constitute an obstacle which you have to navigate safely before it is in any way possible to continue in life.  This is not strictly true but in many young minds exams take on massive importance and significance, to the point where they can become overwhelming.  If in turn, it starts to become insurmountable it can become a real problem for all involved.

So what can be done to lessen the stress at this potentially difficult time?

How you can help…

Well the first thing is to reassure the person sitting the exam that whatever the outcome it does not define who they are and that there will always be other options, another path they can take.  In the words of Mr. Micawber, “something will turn up” or to be even more prosaic ’it is not the end of the world’. It is very important that parents, or guardians, assure children and young adults that no matter what happens they will always be loved and valued for themselves.  They are not going to become pariahs based on the results of a test paper! If a parent could sit the exam for their child they would but as this is not possible their unconditional love is crucial.  The student may be alone in the exam hall but not at any other time.  And for those who have faith they know their parents’ prayers are ‘with them’ all the way.

At a practical level it is possible to help students with their exam preparation e.g. listening to them recite poetry, or simulate an oral test, depending of course on one’s own linguistic competency!  Why not invent a quiz game using History and Geography as the topic for questions. This kind of activity can provide a useful aid to memory as well as being fun. Get involved in acting scenes from Plays which will bring the written word to life.

When you are in the process of sitting exams it can seem like there is nothing else going on and that this duration of time is never going to end.  For these reasons, it is important to ensure the students in the household stay involved in family activities, particularly around shared meal times. Don’t let them become isolated.

Study Times

Study periods should be broken up with breaks where they can unwind and maybe watch a favourite television programme, or even better, walk the dog and get some fresh air in the process!  It is not possible to study non-stop and if they have something they enjoy doing to look forward to, it will not only help focus the mind but also provide a rest period in which to unwind.

Late-night study sessions should be avoided and there should be a decent interval between closing the books and going to bed.  Trying to sleep immediately after hours of concentration will be too exhausting and will not lead to a restful sleep.  Instead, the student will be like a hamster on a wheel, with thoughts going around and around in their heads and clashing into one another. This, in turn, can lead to feelings of panic and restlessness, even negative anxiety.  A good night’s sleep always improves examination performance.

Internal Fuel

What you eat and drink affects your performance in any field of activity, especially one involving mental sharpness.  When studying people can be tempted to stay up late forgetting to eat and drink properly.  Bad eating habits before and during exams results in a loss of energy mentally and physically.   The brain needs the energy from food to work efficiently so it is advisable to keep to a proper diet.

Healthy food choices on exam days include eggs, nuts, yoghurt (natural, with a spoon of honey added) and cottage cheese.  Good breakfast combinations might be whole grain cereal with low-fat milk, eggs, and toast with jam, porridge, or sugar-free muesli.  It is better to avoid foods that are high in sugar, such as chocolate, muffins, pastries and desserts.  They may seem ‘comforting’, but can send you off on sugar highs when you particularly need to feel stabilized during a long exam. Have a banana instead.

Finally – avoid coffee but drink plenty of water.

Last but not Least…

It may seem obvious but it is very necessary to make sure that everyone knows at what days the exams are and at what time.  Maybe pin a copy of the timetable in plain sight, on the fridge or kitchen notice board.  Make a final check each morning that your daughter or son is fully prepared for that day’s exam.  Writing instruments, along with other requirements such as rulers, erasers, calculators etc. should be checked along with reading glasses.

Naturally, you will ask your child each day how they think they did after they finished the exam.  But do be careful with this and avoid dwelling on possible, and especially definite, errors they may have made in answering the paper in question.  This kind of grilling and re-hashing achieves nothing other than increasing stress levels and denting confidence.

Not the Be All and End All…

Very few students are all-rounders who excel in every subject.  Most of us struggle with some area of study.  For me, it was Maths which I failed in the Leaving Cert and Pass at that.  Was it the end of the world?  I can honestly say that it was not and that it never interfered with me pursuing what I wanted.  However, at the time it did not seem like that and I still have a nightmare involving going into an exam for which I have not properly prepared.

Always reassure your child that no matter what results they receive, that there are options.  It may not be their first option, but who knows, in the long run, it just might turn out to be a better one.


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Written by Marie – Therese Cryan

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