How to stay calm, and sleep well at night, during exam time
Authors: Dr Giselle Withers
Almost everyone gets stressed around exam time, but is your anxiety getting out of control, making it hard for you to study or get to sleep at night?
During exam time the mind is often full of anxious thoughts. “Will I pass?” “Will I remember everything for the exam?” These types of thoughts can affect our ability to concentrate and learn new information. What’s more, come bedtime these thoughts churn through the mind, keeping us alert and unable to relax.
While some stress is motivating and can help focus our attention, too much stress can be overwhelming, leading to problems such as:
- Difficulty concentrating
- Changes in mood (feeling sad or ‘flat’)
- Trouble sleeping (this can include difficulties falling asleep, waking up during the night, and feeling unrefreshed in the morning)
- Low motivation
- Feeling unwell (headaches, stomach aches)
- Tension and muscle tightness (particularly around the neck and shoulders)
So, how do we keep stress in check? How do we accept some level of anxiety during exam time to keep us energized, yet not let it interfere with our ability to study or sleep at night?
Keep stress low with the following study tips
- Keep a regular routine during the day, eating three meals at regular times during the day
- Do some exercise each day, such as going for a swim, a walk or stretching in the lounge room.
- Go easy on any caffeinated drinks (coke, coffee, tea, energy drinks). You might feel like they help you to focus but more than two a day can tip you over into anxiety and interfere with your sleep.
- Eat lots of vegetables, salads and fruit and avoid too much junk food.
- If you’re over 18 and drink alcohol socially, take a break or a “drinking holiday” over exam time to keep your mind clear and at it's best.
- Be well prepared for assessment time by attending your classes all semester and staying on top of homework and assignments. Trying to learn everything just before an exam is a recipe for anxiety!
- Take regular breaks from study and do some fun activities to keep balance in your life.
- Reach out to friends, family and teachers for help when you need it.
- Stay focused on your goal for the exam by putting aside unhelpful thoughts about failing. Try writing the negative thoughts down and imagine what you would say to a friend who had the same fears. If anxious thoughts persist, talk to a student counsellor or a teacher you trust about how to deal with exam anxiety.
- Set up small rewards for yourself to enjoy when you have finished sections of study. Take a shower or bath, go for a walk, shoot some basketball hoops, or enjoy a cup of tea and chat with a friend, etc.
Tools to stay calm during study or an exam
Managing exam stress is not easy, but here are two tools to help you stay calm and focused for study time.
Practice mindfulness exercises
Mindfulness helps us focus by teaching us to be aware of what is happening in the present moment, rather than getting distracted by our thoughts. Have you ever read a paragraph in your textbook and realised you didn’t take anything in, so you had to go back and read it over again? This is extremely common and happens when our mind is processing other information and not paying attention to what we are doing. If you notice this happening when you are trying to study, it can be helpful to take a break to practice a mindfulness meditation. You can download and listen to this 15-minute guided meditation recording.
For a quick “reboot” try this simple mindfulness technique to bring your attention back to the here and now.
The 5-senses mindfulness exercise:
- Notice five things you can SEE, such as the pen/highlighter you’re using, the pattern of light on your wall, or the colour of your floor.
- Notice four things you can FEEL, such as the clothes on your skin, the feeling of the chair on your back or legs, or the pressure of your feet on the floor.
- Notice three things you can HEAR, you may be able to hear cars driving past, birds chirping, or people talking.
- Notice two things you can SMELL, such as coffee or tea, a scented candle, or freshly cut grass.
- Notice one thing you can TASTE, take a sip of a drink or have a snack and notice what you can taste, or you might even notice that you can’t taste anything in particular while simply sitting in your study space.
2. Practice breathing exercises
Starting your study with a minute of breathing exercises can help you to clear the mind and release some of the stress you may be feeling. Follow these three steps:
Step one: Find a comfortable place to sit or lie down, close your eyes and focus on your breathing, noticing the pace and rhythm of your natural breath. It can be helpful to place a hand on your belly to make sure you can feel it rise and fall as you breathe in and out. Let the body relax, letting go of tension as you follow your breath.
Step two: For about one minute, focus on breathing more deeply and slowly by breathing in for three seconds, holding the breath for a second then breathing out slowly for four seconds.
Step three: After a minute of slow breathing, let your breathing return to a natural rhythm and notice any changes in your body. Ideally, repeat this breathing exercise every half hour of study or as often as is helpful.
The breathing and 5-senses exercises are quick and effective ways to release tension and bring your focus back to the present moment. They can be practiced at or away from your study area and you can repeat them as many times as you like throughout your period of study. You can even practice them just before or during your exam to help you stay calm and focused.
Tips for sleeping well during periods of stress – like exam time!
As you know, our bodies need around 7-9 hours of sleep each night to function well (and more if you are under 18), but this may be easier said than done during periods of stress. Worrying about exams can make it hard to get to sleep and stay asleep, so you wake up feeling tired and unrefreshed.
Here are some sleep tips to help you during exam time:
- Prioritise sleep by stopping all study and other work at least an hour before bedtime to give yourself time to unwind. Find a relaxing activity to help you unwind such as having a bath, listening to music, or doing something creative.
- Once you’ve stopped studying stay off all other electronic devices, such as your phone, laptop, or TV to help you unwind before bedtime.
- Keep the bed a place for sleep, so it is best not to bring study books, laptops or phones into the bed with you.
- Do some exercise each day to increase general fitness and help release tension in the body
- Practice relaxation exercises before bedtime, using guided recordings or the breathing exercise described above.
- Write down any worrying thoughts on a piece of paper. Evaluate these thoughts by looking at them from a different angle or asking yourself “What would I say to a friend who had these concerns?”. If you get stuck with this, talk to someone who would understand and give you another perspective.
- Practice mindfulness meditation regularly. Meditation has many benefits, including helping you to stay calm, clear minded and focused on the present moment. You can download and use this guided mindfulness meditation recording.
While these tips and tools are not offered as a cure to anxiety or insomnia, they can be used as part of a holistic approach to reduce stress during exam time. Ideally, you’ll want to prevent stress from building up in the first place, so remember to use these strategies all throughout the year.
For more information on improving sleep you might find the following articles helpful: Ten Sleep Tips for Teenagers.
To learn more about reducing stress/anxiety and sleeping well, check out our online course A MINDFUL WAY TO HEALTHY SLEEP. The course will teach you the life-long skills of mindfulness and other CBT (cognitive behavioural therapy) strategies scientifically proven to improve sleep.
All the best for your exams!
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