Dr. Rijusmita Sarma
(The writer is a counselling psychologist.
Can be reached at 8638716076
Experiencing stress before exams is very commonly seen among students. Eustress is healthy and can contribute to improving performance. However, distress and overwhelming anxiety can have a detrimental effect on not only one’s performance but also their overall physical and mental well-being.
Some common causes of exam anxiety could be fear of failure, pressure to perform (from oneself and/or others), difficulty managing time, hurdles in making adequate preparations, etc. Exam anxiety can be presented as difficulty in concentration, anxiety, irritability, procrastination, and low mood, which can even be associated with biological symptoms like palpitation, sweating, vague pains and aches, sleep disturbance, appetite changes, etc. Often, students express that anxiety depletes the ability to focus, despite knowing about its importance, which in turn triggers more anxiety.
But exam stress is manageable. Today I would like to discuss certain strategies for self-care during exams and effective study sessions (before exams).
Taking breaks: Take small breaks (five to ten minutes) after every 45 minutes of study. Research suggests that taking breaks can improve our concentration compared to working for long hours without breaks. This, in turn, can improve productivity. Hence, say ‘yes’ to taking short, frequent, organised breaks instead of considering them to be a ‘waste of time’.
Having a plan: Making a study plan can be the first step in preparation. Don’t hesitate to make and modify your study plan at any point in time as per requirements. To make a study plan, first consider all the things that are needed to be done, then divide them into smaller parts and allot a time for each part. Having a goal can help us focus and not feel lost with too many things to do. While making the plans, it is important to keep in mind to set realistic goals and not fall prey to the planning fallacy (overestimating our abilities and setting overwhelming goals). Adequate sleep: It is said that seven to nine hours of sleep are required for optimal mental health functioning. Having adequate sleep is important to be able to feel energised and have the ability to focus. Inadequate sleep can also compromise our ability to memorise.
Proper nutrition: Often, it is seen that we binge on junk or unhealthy food during exam seasons. Unhealthy food can not only result in exhaustion but also a lower attention span.
Limiting caffeine intake: Caffeine is often used as a means to stay awake. However, caffeine intake beyond the recommended amount can lead to nervousness and a decrease in concentration. But limited (maximum of two to three cups of coffee) and strategic consumption (30 minutes before the study sessions) can be helpful. Healthier ways, like drinking water and exercising, can be relied upon to stay awake. Staying organised and decluttered: Declutter your table and study room. Get rid of unnecessary things. This can help us feel decluttered in our minds and improve our ability to focus on what is required.
Talking to someone: If you find yourself feeling anxious or stressed about your exams, please consider talking to a friend, family member, or mental health professional. Sharing will not only give you a space to express yourself but might also help bring different coping strategies to your cognizance. It might result in decreased stress and improved productivity.
Exercise: Exercise can contribute to improving our ability to think and focus by keeping us fit and active.
Avoid procrastination: Procrastination is a self-defeating behaviour where we avoid going ahead with a task even when we know that the task is important and we have all the resources to do it. Procrastination can increase stress and decrease productivity. The first steps towards dealing with procrastination are identifying the behaviour and then figuring out the reasons contributing to procrastination.
Gather materials the night before: Getting ready for the next morning with all the materials required, the night before. This can relieve us of the hurry and glitches on the day of the exam. This can help us stay relaxed.
Meditation or breathing exercises: guided meditation (mobile applications are available for it) and deep breathing can help us relax and improve our ability to focus, learn, retain, remember, and recall.
Keep grounding techniques in mind: Grounding techniques can help us manage states of panic that we might experience before or even during exams. For instance, taking a pause, taking six deep breaths, and taking a few sips of water can help us get back and focus on the task at hand. Listening to music: It is known to us that music has a therapeutic advantage. Calming music can help the brain relax and improve concentration. Take practice tests: Taking practice tests can help reduce anxiety. They make us more aware of our strengths and areas to be worked on. They also make us familiar with the exam structure, which can reduce our fear of the unknown.
The above-mentioned strategies are simple yet effective in managing stress and anxiety before exams. But along with them, I would like to mention the importance of self-talk. The way we talk to ourselves has an impact on our emotions and ability to cope with the situation. So, kindly be mindful of what you say to yourself. For example, try saying, “I will give my best efforts” instead of “I must be successful.” Also, often, some examinations are considered ‘bigger than life’. Examinations may be a way of achieving practical benefits in life, but they aren’t the only way. They may be important for us, but beware of narratives like, “I have to crack this examination or my life is over.” Our successes and achievements are a part of our lives, not life itself.