Exam Stress: Dos and Don’ts (For Students and Parents)

by Emily Thornhill


Exam stress is felt every year by many students whether they are in Primary School, High School, College or University. Despite its high prevalence in all age groups, it is not particularly well managed and published advice can be ignored.


Childline’s recent National Exam Stress Survey saw that 96% of 1300 students who completed their survey felt anxious about exam revision.


Dr Rachel Andrew, Consultant Clinical Psychologist, from Time Psychology Ltd has noticed how the number of children with exam stress rises in May. For children aged 7-11, they are at a crucial developmental stage where they are vulnerable due to their lack of control over external stressors.


The pressure on, and uncertainty of, the country’s young generation has been positively correlated with a surge in suicide rates among our young people. Research into exam stress, depression and suicidal ideation saw that the main reported causes of depression at college/university were due to difficulties with academic achievement, loneliness, relationship problems, and issues with parents. Many students described feeling helpless and hopeless. These causes are similar to those found in a study back in 1987, showing perhaps that little has changed for the student population.


The size of the school, college or university seems to correlate with the number of students who experience depression. Lower depression rates occur in students from community colleges, perhaps because students can maintain good support networks whilst attending. Feeling part of the community is a factor that prevents low mood. So, perhaps bigger universities and colleges could take even bolder steps to ensure every student feels a part of the community that they are in. This could be done through encouraging students to join in – perhaps in volunteer work or participating in sports and activities that interest them.


Some universities such as The University of Dundee recognise exam stress to be a distinctive part of student life and they have taken steps to reduce it. Shiatsu massages given by professional masseuses were popular with students, and other ‘chill out’ activities such as puppy petting and craft making have been equally stress relieving. Students should research what resources their school/college/university have in place to alleviate exam stress and participate in these activities as and when they feel.


We mustn’t underestimate the impact caused by parental pressure either. Recent research by Childline saw that 59% of students were feeling stressed due to pressure from their parents. Parents should look out for exam anxiety symptoms including bed-wetting in younger children, reluctance to go to school or lectures, sleep problems and lack of appetite.


Parents can do much to support their children. Dr Andrew suggests firstly empathising with them, we all know that exam season is a really difficult time. Parents can try to understand their son or daughter’s low or frustrated moods and give them time and space for revision by relaxing on chores and household tasks. Parents can try to ensure that children do things outside of revision and encourage trips out or small breaks to enjoy. It is vital too that parents find a balance between what they expect of their child and what is realistically attainable. Having too high expectations can feel unachievable and hopeless, whilst too low expectations can be equally demotivating.


Some tips for students from Childline include incorporating some gentle exercise into the week. Fresh air and energy release can help to clear the mind. Try also to remember that you are not alone, and that negative thoughts or thinking styles are normal during any time of uncertainty. If students can picture their success i.e. imagine sitting the exam calmly and writing down everything they know, it can help anxious feelings and help improve performance. A well ventilated, productive environment can also encourage positivity. Getting enough sleep is vital too, unhelpful thoughts often creep in when we are tired so it is important that we try to allow our mind enough time to rest. Finally, a well balanced, healthy diet can also improve mood-swings, ensuring your body and brain have enough fuel is important when maintaining healthy nervous and digestive systems and therefore regulating your mood.


Communication is so important during exam season. Remember to talk to friends, family and tutors – remind yourself that there is a light at the end of the tunnel. Try not to compare yourself with your peers, ultimately you should remember that you can only do your best. And parents can help their children to regain perspective when they are struggling. Exams can always be retaken and one bad mark does not define you or your child.


By Emily Thornhill







Smartphone Addiction

By Emily Thornhill

The past couple of years have seen a surge in mobile phone usage. Smartphones are becoming more and more advanced, now containing highly addictive apps for texting, shopping, online gaming and social networking. 93% of adults own or personally use a smartphone in the UK (Ofcom). Many of whom can’t resist the compulsion to reach for their phones several times a day, often making it the first thing they do in the morning and the last thing at night, ignoring loved ones in the process.

Modern advances are regularly criticised by old fashioned technophobes, but it is time to be honest with ourselves. It is time to see that smartphone usage can be addictive and it is becoming an epidemic. You only need to step on a train to see that public transport now consists of lifeless humans peering down, staring at their phones. Passengers rarely talk, and if they did, their phone would be firmly in their hand ready to check during any slight gap in conversation. That is, if they are even aware that they are being spoken to in the first place.

Being connected using smartphones does have its benefits in terms of networking for work and keeping in touch with friends and family. But when the withdrawal symptoms can be similar to those experienced by smokers quitting cigarettes, it is clear that phone usage might need to be rationed right from the start. Dr Rachel Andrew, our consultant psychologist at Time Psychology states how tech addicts become anxious when they are offline. “Their bodies can flood with adrenaline. They can suffer shortness of breath and increased heart rate. They can find it difficult to concentrate on other things, their mind can go blank, they can feel hot and sweaty, and they are preoccupied with getting back online.”

The fact that there is now a need for digital detox retreats, where people go away to areas of the country that is completely without signal, or smart phone jails, where we lock our phones away in a plastic jail with a timer on them, highlights the clear addictive qualities of smartphone usage. People have become obsessed with staying up to date with current news or gossip but in reality, many people who return from their detox retreats say that after their break from social media, they realise that they didn’t miss much at all.

Dr Andrew states how, “Relationships suffer with people who are not present for each other”. People can become preoccupied with the false, airbrushed worlds of Facebook or Instagram instead of concentrating on their important, real issues and relationships. Using smartphones could be seen in Psychology as an avoidance strategy, which helps relieve social awkwardness or anxiety, but in reality prevents people from combatting their issues head-on.

smartphone psychologyOur society’s children and teenagers are a generation under extreme pressure to conform to this increasingly complex online domain, leading to feelings of inferiority and self-esteem issues. A recent study by Samaha and Hawi (2016) showed that among 300 university students, those who were more addicted to their phones tended to experience higher levels of perceived stress. They also found that students at high risk of smartphone addiction performed less well academically.

So what can we all do? As with any addiction it is important to accept that there is a problem. Each individual is different in how their smartphone use affects them, and going “cold turkey” may not be the best way. A lot of people returning from their digital detox retreats find that they relapse as soon as their phone detects a signal again. So perhaps the best way to help ourselves, is to put a time limit on each app that we use, or to gradually reduce the time spent online by giving ourselves time in the day without our phone nearby. We should show ourselves that there are other, more important things in life and that talking face-to-face with people is much more fun than staring down at a bright screen.

Overall, smartphones have lots to offer, but when overused they can reduce our quality of life. An important thing to remember is about educating our children. Help them understand that talking to friends online and posting pictures of their meal that day isn’t the be-all and end-all. Even better, through our behaviour, let’s model healthy smartphone use to them.

Let’s appreciate the body language and social interaction skills that we were born with and have developed through our lifetimes! Let’s educate, be aware, spot the signs and help each other to see how colourful life can be without smartphones. Better still, let’s lock our phones away in a smart phone jail (even just temporarily) and just talk to each other.