Coping with exam stress

As we come near to exam time, particularly for students completing the HSC, there is one thing that we can count on…there will be stress.

By Mrs Claire Marsh Psychologist Manager – Adventist Counselling Services 02 August 2016

Signs of a stress during exam time might include snappiness or irritability, changes in eating or sleeping patterns, changes in motivation, difficulty with decision-making or memory, negative self-talk and self-doubt, or even physical signs such as stomach aches or headaches. When we see this, we know that the stress and pressure might be getting all too much. This time can be very worrying for busy students, and for those who live with them! Stress can seem so unhelpful during busy times so why do we experience it and what can we do about it? Understanding the nature of stress can help us to manage and cope with it better:

Stress increases our performance…but only to a point!
Imagine if we never felt stressed about anything, ever! We would never even care about how we performed on important tasks! Stress has a functional role in improving our performance on important tasks because it means that we care about the outcome. So, a certain amount of stress is actually a very helpful thing! As our level of stress or pressure increases it has the effect of causing us to be more focussed, mentally alert and to prioritise our time in order to produce the best outcome possible. This is referred to as the Yerkes-Dodson Law, as developed by 2 Psychologists back in 1908. The law dictates that performance increases with physiological or mental alertness, but only up to a point. When levels of stress become too high, performance decreases.

We all have different tolerances for stress
If stress is either too high or too prolonged it can begin to have the opposite effect and begin to decrease our ability to perform well or even function. We need to recognise where our ‘peak’ is and implement self-care strategies to manage stress that is beginning to push us towards burn-out. Some people have a very high ‘peak’ and can tolerate high levels of stress, and others have a lower ‘peak’ meaning that they can don’t perform as well when under stress or cannot tolerate prolonged periods of stress. Noticing the signs and where your limits are will help you know when you need self-care and to balance your study with other things.

Self-care, self-care, self-care!
Looking after yourself is your responsibility, because you know yourself better than anyone else does (…well almost better than your parents do!). Self-care is extremely important during times that we predict will be stressful. The advantage of predictable stress is that we can prepare for it and put self-care plans in place to manage the impact of this time. Self-care includes basic daily activities you engage in that will help you relax and maintain good health. It is very important to eat well and regularly, get between 8-10 hours of sleep (during the night!), and engage in other activities that usually help you to unwind such as sport, church, exercise, hobbies and relaxation, even though it is tempting to cut back on these ‘leisure’ activities for study. It will refresh you and give you a burst of endorphin's (‘happy hormones’) to balance out the stress, as long as it is part of a more flexible ‘exam-time’ routine.

Don’t forget to thank your anxiety!
We often resent our anxiety and how nervous or negative it can make us feel when going into exam time. We wish for those feelings to go away, but in reality they are alerting us to what is important, helping us to focus on the task at hand, and allowing us to rise to the challenge and perform at our peak. Next time you notice yourself feeling stressed, try to think, “Thank you, anxiety, for making me care about my schoolwork!”. If you find yourself falling into overly negative self-talk and thinking, “I can’t do this, I’m going to fail and ruin my future!” think about whether you would say that to a close friend in the same situation, and instead tell yourself what you would say to a close friend, “You’ll get through this!”.

Putting these ideas together with early preparation and a good support network will help you to cope better with exam stress. If you are having trouble coping and need extra support, seek counselling. You can talk with a counsellor about career goals, study planning and time management skills.

For further tips and help with exam stress, go to:, or call the Kids Helpline on 1800 55 1800 or the NSW Parentline on 1300 1300 52.

You can download a helpful booklet on ‘How to Cope with Student Life’ from

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