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Revise your ideas about exam stress

As students gear up for summer examinations, Ailin Quinlan speaks to experts about how you can perform best when put to the test

Published 17/05/2016

Testing times: planning ahead is key to stress-free exam studying
Testing times: planning ahead is key to stress-free exam studying

Stress is all about perception, says author and child and adolescent psychologist Dr Patrick Ryan. And as the dreaded exams loom, he says that it's important to understand that we can challenge our perception of a "stressor" with how we choose to respond to it.

Take Control

Study your exam timetable and make yourself aware of the sequence of exams and how they are spread out. Ensure your family is fully aware of these dates. Plan your study location - the place where you work best and without distractions, and eliminate any unnecessary distractions - online or otherwise. "This keeps things in perspective and helps you avoid catastrophic thinking because you know what's ahead and you're in control," says Betty McLaughlin, president of the Institute of Guidance Counsellors.

Build Your Support System

This involves the creation of a practical study plan for the weeks leading up to start of exams and for days between exams.

"The plan should be realistic and achievable - it should stretch you but not stress you," says McLaughlin.

Trust Your Personal Study Style

"Don't copy the way others study but work out, in the time left, what will work best for you," advises Dr Ryan. "Are you someone who works best in very short periods of intense study or in longer, more sustained periods of effort? Recall a time when you have learned something very easily and very well. Ask yourself what made that happen and replicate it."


Prioritise your subjects and allocate time to revising each subject area, says McLaughlin. Organise your notes, texts, essays and study resources before you get started. "If you are missing any key notes or resources, make sure you get them from a teacher or classmate," she adds

Share, Share, Share

"Where possible and useful, work in small groups and share the learning load," suggests Dr Ryan.

It's good for reducing the stress, he explains. "Chunk up the work so you and a small number of peers can actively teach one another and learn from one another through work. Don't sit down and complain," he says.

A Good Routine Fights Stress

"It is easier on you psychologically and physically if you have a good routine to support you - it's about putting a good system into place," explains McLaughlin. Establish a routine by starting your study at a fixed time each day, giving yourself 15 minutes or so to organise your thoughts and notes before you begin. It's also a good idea to rotate the order of the subjects you study each day, she adds, and don't forget to take short breaks between subject areas studied.

Information Not Going In? Try This

Plan a house, suggests Dr Ryan, who says he's had good results over the years from using this ancient Greek technique: "Imagine that what you are trying to learn is a story, and that different bits of that story or necessary information, have been placed in different rooms in a big house. When you want to recall the particular pieces of information, walk through the house."

Give Your Brain a Break

Your brain works best when it is engaged in a range or variety of activities, says Dr Ryan. Don't spend long hours studying French, for example, and don't spend the whole night studying in long blocks. Take the occasional brain-break: "Look at YouTube clips of funny babies or listen to music. That allows your brain to let material you have learned settle into your long-term memory."

Avoid Sugars and Fats

When you're stressed, your body thinks you're going to be attacked. It immediately starts to crave sugar and fat so that it will have lots of energy to fight off an attack. If you eat sugary or fatty foods, you are quite literally telling your body to prepare for a fight, says Dr Ryan. "But remember - when you're in a fight, you can neither study or learn."

Walk Off Stress

Take at least 30 minutes exercise each day, a brisk walk, a swim or a short cycle. "You will feel reinvigorated and it will help to relieve the clutter in the brain," says McLaughlin.

Belfast Telegraph

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