Navigating Exam Stress and Anxiety

Published On: 11 April 2024

With statutory exams just around the corner for many children and young people, stress and anxiety levels are starting to rise across thousands of schools and homes.

The ripple effects of exam season are far-reaching, affecting not only the children and young people themselves, but also school leaders, teachers, parents, and carers. It’s vital, then, that we take a holistic approach to support over the coming months, as we help students to successfully navigate this often-challenging period.

Exam stress affects everyone

As the culmination of years of formal education, exams can often feel like the ‘be all and end all’. Students face weeks, if not months, of relentless revision, at the end of which lie numerous high-stakes tests that, for many, will shape their future choices.

Adolescence can already be a difficult period for some, so the additional stress of statutory exams can quickly leave teenagers feeling overwhelmed and anxious.

Impact on teachers and school leaders

Staff, too, are under enormous pressure during this period. For school leaders, and for teachers who work in key year groups, an unwavering focus on results means they must balance the pressure of hitting grade targets, with students’ – and their own – mental health needs.

Against the backdrop of a deepening recruitment and retention crisis, it’s more important than ever to prioritise staff’s wellbeing, so that committed practitioners feel valued and supported in their roles.

Families under pressure

Beyond the school gates, the stress and anxiety of exams can spill into home life as well, leaving parents and carers feeling helpless. They may be stuck between trying to alleviate feelings of anxiety for their child, while also projecting their own worries about academic outcomes and performance onto them.

It can be difficult for families to know what kind of support to offer – when to get involved, and when to stand back – when they themselves are juggling multiple responsibilities.

Stress and anxiety-related behaviours

Of course, some children and young people breeze through their exams relatively unscathed, and successfully manage to keep feelings of stress and anxiety at bay. For others, however, a combination of external pressure to perform, and an inner drive to excel, leaves them struggling to cope, and engaging in behaviours that may be unusual for them.

Stress and anxiety can manifest in a wide range of emotional and physiological symptoms, and can include:

  • Being ‘snappy’ or argumentative
  • Withdrawing, or spending more time away from others
  • Feeling low or tearful
  • Sleeping less, or more, than usual
  • Losing interest in hobbies and activities
  • Noticing physical symptoms e.g. nausea, headache, stomach pain
  • Struggling to eat well
  • Difficulty focusing and concentrating
  • Feeling overwhelmed

While a little bit of stress is not necessarily a bad thing, and is a normal response to pressure, we need to be sure that it doesn’t become overwhelming, and that we empower young people with the tools they need to cope cognitively, emotionally, and physically during this time.

How can we support our young people and each other?

Many of the strategies that we can use with students, we can also use ourselves, to make sure we are in the best place to support them through this challenging period.

1: Prioritising self-care

Packed revision schedules and busy exam timetables can leave little room for self-care, so we need to make sure it is factored in as a priority.

Self-care encompasses all of the small things we do to protect our mental and physical health, and looks different for every person: it might be going for a long walk or run; it could be meeting friends for a coffee and a chat; or it may be indulging in a long, hot bubble bath. It doesn’t even need to be an activity, per se: it might be setting boundaries around who you interact with, or giving yourself permission to switch off and relax.

Whatever it entails, self-care is central to exam success, as we can only thrive and excel when our physical and emotional needs are met.

2: Take positive action – no matter how small

When we are afraid or uncertain, our nervous system goes into a stress response of ‘fight, flight, or freeze’, and this manifests in different types of behaviour. When it comes to exam preparation, a common ‘freeze’ response is procrastination.

Procrastination is not just a mindset issue; it’s a physiological response to a real or perceived threat, and can translate as putting off tasks we know we should do. This quickly becomes a negative cycle, where our lack of action makes us feel even more overwhelmed, so we become less and less able to act. It can feel as though we are paralysed by fear.

Taking incremental steps, no matter how small, can help to break this cycle. Make a colourful revision schedule; organise your notes and books; create a task planner; map out topics for each subject; tidy up your workspace. All of these small actions can help you overcome the fear of starting, and enable you to feel more positive and motivated.

3: Change your self-talk

We are sometimes guilty of talking incredibly harshly to ourselves, about ourselves. Especially when we are feeling stressed or anxious, our self-talk can quickly become overly-negative, and we say things, such as:

  • I’m rubbish at this
  • Why can’t I do anything right?
  • I’ll never pass these exams
  • I’m so lazy and disorganised
  • Everyone else knows more than me
  • What’s the point of even trying?

We say things we would never dream of saying to someone else, particularly somebody we care about. Becoming aware of this inner voice is the first step towards changing how we talk to ourselves, and shifting to a more positive tone:

  • I’ve got this
  • I’m working hard right now
  • I’m doing my very best
  • I’m excited to show what I can do
  • This is my chance to shine

It takes practice, but over time, positive self-talk can dramatically change our mindset and outlook when things are worrying us.

4: Practise mindfulness

Developing a mindfulness practice can help us stay ‘present’ in the moment, and prevent us from falling into patterns of negative thinking, and catastrophising.

Contrary to what some people may think, mindfulness is not about getting rid of negative thoughts, or emptying your mind. Rather, it is the practice of noticing your thoughts, but not attaching to them. It’s about making space between you and what you are thinking. This ‘space’ allows for clarity, and, when coupled with breathing exercises and techniques, can be a powerful way to calm your nervous system, and regain control of your feelings and emotions.

5: Talk to someone

Sometimes, simply talking to someone else can be the most effective way to manage feelings of stress and anxiety. It might be a friend or family member, or a trusted adult in school or at home.

When we feel worried, it can be easy to turn inwards, and try to cope with difficult feelings ourselves, so talking to somebody else can help to alleviate any concerns, and help us gain perspective about what is going on.

Further help and support

Regardless of how important exams can feel, we need to remember that our self-worth is not dependent on how we perform, or the results we get. By developing a toolkit of diverse support strategies, we can successfully navigate this testing time.

For further help or advice, there are many charities and organisations that can support young people through exam season, including : Young Minds, Mind, NHS and Childline.

And if you’d like to talk to us about your needs when it comes to supporting behaviour in your organisation, please get in touch any time.