Learning to look after myself during the Leaving Cert

Ailís talks about the importance of self-care and reaching out to a friend if you’re struggling

Written by Ailís Chapman


It cannot be denied that doing your Leaving Cert is not a fun experience in any year. For two years of your life, many people put in as much work as possible to do as well as they can. For me, my leaving cert experience as part of the class of 2020 was full of anxiety, confusion, and stress. The lack of information and the fear of the unknown was scary. It was difficult dealing with a pandemic during a time in our academic lives that we had always been told was so important.

Impact on my mental health

As someone who was a high achiever in school and was working extremely hard for the Leaving Cert, the feeling of losing control of my work and potentially my grades was very difficult for me. Every few days there would be a new announcement about cancelled oral exams or practicals. As all of those were strong points for me, I felt a huge pressure to achieve scores that I had previously felt I had under control. During that time, I spent endless days in tears, crying myself to sleep and yet staying silent because ‘everyone was in the same boat’. I hated how much the Leaving Cert controlled my days. We are living through a global pandemic and yet there was more emphasis on whether we should get predicted grades than how our mental health was or whether we had lost a loved one.

Coping with stress and anxiety

I had never experienced a stress quite like the one I felt studying from home and preparing for the uncertain Leaving Cert. I felt totally alone. Every day there was a new announcement from the Government (or lack of). There were people from every angle weighing in their opinion of whether students should sit their exams or not. Nobody seemed to be listening to us students. The stress of the leaving cert was probably worse for me than the stress of the pandemic – terrible I know!! It was weighing heavily on my mind and I needed to find a way to cope with that worry.

Making time for self-care

I decided to make time for self-care and focus on ways that help me destress. I decided to pick up the guitar again and reignite my love for playing music. I had previously decided that I had no time to play but giving myself the time to focus on me was so helpful in what felt like an endless cycle of anxiety. Being able to take time away from my phone and social media to allow for some ‘me time’ made me reflect on how much screen time we have these days. Many of us are so consumed with checking the news, social media and comparing ourselves with others, rather than taking some time to let ourselves breathe and cope with the situations we are in.

Learning to be kind to myself

I think that when you go through extreme stress you experience a wave of emotions. For me, I felt anxious, sad, guilty etc. and yet I was going through one of the most stressful points of my life to date. It can feel like your mind is working in over-drive but it is important to remember that someone will understand if you reach out and talk to them. It is so important that we are kind to our bodies and minds and treat ourselves with the respect we deserve!

Moving on from the Leaving Cert

Since the Leaving Cert, I have gone onto college. I’m now studying a subject I adore and trying my best to make friends in this strange climate. I look back on last year during those last few months of study and I realise that I was far too hard on myself. In this pandemic we are all trying to do our best in every situation and with every new announcement. I have had time to reflect on my priorities and I am a lot more aware of self-care and the importance of talking to friends and family about how I feel – remember you are never alone!

As someone who has often felt trapped by being a perfectionist, I realised how that constant attempt to reach perfection was affecting all areas of my life. I am now actively trying to figure out ways to cope with stress and pressure. The Leaving Cert 2020 was not an easy experience. It’s one that I will always remember but I am so much happier having gotten through it. We all get through our lowest points and there is only one direction to go from there. For those students in the Leaving Cert class of 2021 – brighter days are ahead, I promise.

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