How to deal with exam stress

Make-or-break school and uni exams are around the corner – and for many students, the nerves and stress can feel overwhelming.

Young people are experiencing unprecedented levels of exam stress, with two-thirds of young people saying they have suffered it at “worrying levels”.

A national survey of 1000 people aged 14 to 25 by youth service ReachOut found 65.1 per cent experienced worrying levels of exam stress – a leap from 51.2 per cent in 2017.

The figures are no surprise to clinical psychologist Dr Kelly Nathaniel, who is seeing increasing numbers of young people with exam-induced stress – caused largely by expectation.

“It’s a mixture of external expectation from school, family and friends, but I am noticing teens placing a lot more internalised pressure and expectation on themselves these days,” Dr Nathaniel says.

This period also collides with a “tricky point in development in general” in young people, when parts of the brain, such as the prefrontal cortex, aren’t as developed.

“Therefore organising, time management and decision-making can prove difficult for them compared with adults,” says Dr Nathaniel, who works with Melbourne Children’s Psychology Clinic.

It is also the first time many young people seriously confront their future study or work life.

The ReachOut survey also found that more young people were worried about their future in general, linked to economic uncertainty, job prospects, housing affordability and the threat to jobs posed by artificial intelligence.

exam stress

Ways to combat stress before an exam

Dr Nathaniel says much of the stress associated with exams occurs in the lead-up and study period.

Here are some of her top tips:

  • Remember you are not your ATAR; it doesn’t define you.
  • Prioritise “self-care” by keeping as much balance as possible and keeping life’s basics going – eat healthily, get as much sleep as possible, exercise.
  • Maintain your social connections and support networks.
  • Try to do some activities beyond school.
  • Study timetables can be very helpful, and if you use them, ensure you build in some breaks or “down time”.
  • Set times you can access your mobile phone. While phones can be a distraction, they can often be an escape and a way of maintaining social connections. Use them as a form of reward for study time. Same goes for gaming.
  • As you work through and achieve incremental goals, set yourself a reward.

Directly before the exam

Some people find standing around talking to their peers really stressful, so go somewhere to be alone if needed.

How to beat stress during the exam

  • Take plenty of pauses, take a moment to do some deep breathing.
  • Take time to read through the questions, pace yourself.
  • Try some “grounding” techniques, which help calm down the body and brain, and slowly bring the thinking part of the brain – the pre-frontal cortex – back into action.

A common grounding technique is the 54321 – name five things you can see; four things you can feel; three things you can hear; two things you can smell; and one thing you can taste.

Dr Nathaniel recommends the WhatsUp app for grounding exercises.

After the exams

Post mortems of the exam are often stressful, so think about a way to exit the exam without having to go over it all with your peers.

Where to get more help

There’s a lot of support out there. Try:

Watch Social Scientist Dr Ali Walker discuss strategies for beating exam stress on House of Wellness TV.