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8 October 2020

Feeling anxious about your exams? Here’s how to beat the stress

The exam period is always one of the most stressful times of the trimester, with many students putting lots of pressure on themselves to achieve good marks or meet high personal or family expectations.

You may be feeling even more anxious than usual about the upcoming exam period, as ongoing COVID-19 restrictions mean that there are no venue-based exams. Take some time now to ensure you understand the new processes and requirements for your units.

Read our guide to T2/S2 final assessments and our tips for how to prepare for online exams.

Once you’re feeling more familiar with the academic side of things, you may still find you need some help to calm those pesky nerves. Luckily, there’s some tried and tested ways to relax your mind, turn your nerves into a strength and get in the exam zone.

Keep your body active, not just your brain

If you find yourself becoming overwhelmed by pre-exam stress, or unable to focus after hours of reading, exercise is one of the simplest things you can do to stay mentally sharp.

‘Exercise helps release dopamine, which is like your motivation molecule to stay focused, more attentive,’ says Associate Professor Steve Fraser from Deakin’s Institute for Physical Activity and Nutrition. ‘You also get endorphins, like a runner’s high … and things like serotonin, which is your feel-good hormone.’

Even 15 to 30 minutes of exercise is useful. ‘The main thing is the blood flow to the brain helps oxygenate the brain, and it helps relieve tension,’ Assoc. Prof. Fraser says. ‘When you’re stressed you release cortisol. Exercise can help counter that and help you return yourself to a normal physiological level.’

Embrace the power of positivity

Putting pressure on yourself to achieve a certain grade is a big contributor to stress and anxiety, so try to keep your thoughts positive. While sitting an exam can seem daunting, it can be helpful to remind yourself that exams are not designed to trick you or catch you out! Try to remain confident in your ability and use your exam as an opportunity to demonstrate your knowledge. 

Even if you’re feeling underprepared, negative self-talk like, ‘My life will be ruined if I fail’ won’t help. If you find your head is filled with negative thoughts, discover how to reframe this self-talk.

Be kind to yourself

While it’s easy to cast aside other activities when exams are looming, it’s important to still make time for the things you love. Prioritising other areas of your life besides study will allow you to be your best, energised and most happy self, so that you can prepare for exams in the most productive and effective way.

While physical distancing restrictions have made it hard to socialise as normal, you can still set aside some personal time to do something for yourself – maybe you love to draw or bake? – so find regular time for your hobbies. However you like to treat yourself for all of your hard work, make sure to find some balance, and don’t wait until your exams are over to do it.

Just breathe

Deep breathing is a simple and extremely effective way to help you feel calm and manage stress and anxiety. Try taking a few deep breaths whenever you begin to notice your stress levels rising, such as while you’re studying or as you wait to jump online for your exam.

To slow down your breathing, inhale to the count of four and exhale to the count of six. When you lengthen your exhalations to be longer than your inhalations, your body begins to switch on your parasympathetic nervous system, which in turn will calm you down. Focusing on something as simple as breathing helps to quieten those racing thoughts by acting as a temporary and soothing distraction. You can also use apps such as Smiling Mind to find additional breathing exercises to help you relax.

Talk it out

While all of these strategies can collectively help you to manage stress during exam time, you may find that anxiety is an ongoing challenge. Consider talking to someone such as a family member, friend or counsellor about how you’re feeling. Seeking support will remind you that you’re not alone and starting to talk about your situation take some of the pressure off.

Find out what professional support is available.

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