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