How to handle exam stress

Preparing for exams can be stressful at the moment but there are some things that may help.

Written by spunout


The COVID-19 pandemic has brought a lot of uncertainty about this year’s exams. If you are feeling stressed about upcoming exams, know that you are not alone. 

Managing feelings of stress around your exams

There are steps you can take and supports you can turn to to help you to manage exam stress.

Focus on what you can control

It’s possible that you are worried about what the exams will look like this year, or what questions will come up on the papers. In times of uncertainty it’s natural for us to think or worry about what might happen in the future. For many of us, this can be unhelpful as we are worrying about something that we cannot influence or control. 

When it comes to your exams, focus on what you do know and what you can control and try to prepare for your exams using that information. Although this is not an easy task, it is a more productive way to try and keep our minds on track and keep motivated. One way to do this is to know the timing and layout of each exam paper, and what degree of choice you will have with the questions. Your teachers should be able to give you this information.

Mindfulness can allow us to become aware of our thoughts and keep us focused on the present moment. Read more about mindfulness exercises you can try at home.

Try to create a routine and study space

Keeping a study routine is a helpful way of staying on track. Put together a study timetable with time slots to focus on different subjects and schedule regular breaks. This can help manage feelings of stress as you know you have a plan in place with time given to each subject you are studying. Try to organise your day so that the bulk of all activities are done early, allowing you to recover in the evening time.

When you first create a study timetable, know that it doesn’t have to be perfect. Review your timetable every day to see what worked well and where you weren’t as productive as you thought you might have been. Make the necessary changes to try and make the next day’s timetable more effective for you. 

If you have a place in your home where you can make your own study space, this can really help. Research has shown that when we study in an environment similar to the one where you will do your exams, it can help us when trying to remember information. If possible, try to study somewhere with little noise or distractions and away from where you would normally relax. Read more about how to create a study space at home.

Practice under exam conditions

The more you can put yourself in an exam condition, the less pressure you will feel in the exam itself. One way to practice this is by giving yourself a set amount of time to complete sample exam questions. You can do this with notes the first time, but it is a good idea to take them away over time. This will allow you to get a sense of what the real exam will be like.

Ask for support with exam stress from those you live with

As you prepare for your exams, it is possible that you are spending more time at home. Spending time with the same people for a long period of time can be difficult, especially while trying to study. Try explaining to your family how important it is for you to have a quiet space without distractions. Ask if they can help you to create a study space away from others in the house. During these times we may need to be creative about how or where we study – even if that means setting up a homemade desk for yourself.

If you are experiencing challenges at home, it might be difficult to find a safe and quiet space to study. If you feel unsafe or unsupported at home, it is important to tell someone you know and trust about the situation. This could be another family member, a friend, a counsellor, a support organisation or another person you feel comfortable sharing this with. Read more about recognising and getting help for domestic abuse

Take breaks

If we are feeling stressed or anxious about exams we can sometimes get too focused on the amount of time we are sitting at a desk studying. No matter how motivated we are, there is only so long we can focus on and actually take in information. 

It is completely normal if your attention starts to drift after some time spent studying. Taking regular breaks is critical for us to be able to process and remember new information. When you do take a break, move away from the space you are studying as much as possible, so you recognise and feel that you have taken a break. If it is possible, try to get some movement during your break. Getting out for a quick walk can significantly boost both performance and your mood, allowing you to continue with the rest of the session or day.

Read more about how to create an effective study timetable.

Try not to be too hard on yourself

Remember that you are in a situation that you could never have prepared for when it comes to doing exams. The last two years have been extremely challenging, particularly for students. It’s understandable if you have days where you feel stressed, or unmotivated or unsure how you feel. These are all normal feelings to have. Try to do as much as you can to stay focused and doing a little each day should help you to feel less stressed in the long run.

It is important to continue to take care of yourself as you prepare for exams. Helpful habits like getting enough sleep can often fall away as exams come closer, even though this is a time when we need to focus on these habits more than ever. Find out more about how your habits can make studying easier.

Talk to someone about how you feel if you’re experiencing exam stress

If you feel you are becoming overwhelmed with feelings of stress around your exams it’s important that you try to talk to someone. Sharing this with someone else can help you feel better and it means that you will have the support of that person over the next few weeks and months when it comes to exams. If you feel like you need some professional support, here is a list of affordable mental health supports for young people in Ireland.

You can also contact our free text support service 50808:

Feeling overwhelmed and want to talk to someone?

If you are a customer of the 48 or An Post network or cannot get through using the ‘50808’ short code please text HELLO to 086 1800 280 (standard message rates may apply). Some smaller networks do not support short codes like ‘50808’.

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