7 tips for beating end of year school exam stress: Start by making anxiety your friend

Year 12 exams began in South Australia today and the TV cameras were rolling to cram in the latest psychological insights for helping students perform well under pressure.

If you missed the news bulletins, we have put one of them below.

But I have also captured my 7 tips for getting you through this important period, and they begin by making it very clear that any anxiety you are feeling is not only normal, it is healthy and potentially helpful.

Year 12 is an important transition point: Hold on for an intense ride

Unlike earlier school years, Year 12 not only marks the end of another year, it typically marks a transition from high school to university or vocational training or the workforce.

Coupled with the transition to adulthood, this year is described by most people I talk to as one of the most intense experiences of their lives.

And the anxiety you’re hopefully feeling right now is playing an important role in making those memories deep.

This is because anxiety is a healthy response from our bodies in times of challenge, difficulty and stress.

Anxiety is the sign that our body is marshalling all its resources to focus on the task at hand.

Unfortunately, our minds become so active we also dwell on ‘what if’ scenarios too, such as ‘what if I fail or forget my textbooks, etc?’

So here are some strategies or tips I’ve used for my clients, to help them use the ‘force’ of anxiety for good, and not get overwhelmed by it.

7 steps to more effective Year 12 exams

  • Anxiety is your friend. Remember that anxiety is a normal part of the exam experience and is simply your body’s way of letting you know that you are ready to tackle this challenge. But here are two crucial insights to help your friendship with anxiety blossom. Firstly, the feelings that anxiety brings to the surface lose their ‘power’ when you are able to simply acknowledge them. Don’t fight them. Just nod your head to them and thank them for their concern. Secondly, if you do some deep breathing, you will find your mind tends to be able to make ‘room’ for these feelings so they don’t get in the way of your study preparation. This might sound strange while you’re reading it, but next time you feel a wave of anxiety approaching, find a minute or so to breathe deeply, let the feelings settle, then move on with your study.
  • Look after yourself. Make sure you rest, choose good nutrition and take regular breaks from study. There’ll be plenty of time for staying up late and sleeping in late in just a few weeks. Our goal here is to make sure you don’t turn up for an exam and sleep at the desk!
  • Stop studying. Yes, you read that correctly. Stop studying from time to time. It is tempting to want to squeeze in study 100% of the time but we know that does not lead to peak performance. Some contact with friends and family helps keep things in balance, recharge the batteries, and allows you to hit each study session or exam afresh.
  • Speak to your support team. It is not unusual for some students to buckle this close to the finish line, when every voice inside is crying out to run as far away from exams and study as possible. Instead of dwelling on these overwhelming thoughts, focus on the ‘what’s in it for me’ part of exams. Remember, success here can open doors to freedom, to independence, to career pathways, to travel, the list goes on. Trust me, sharing these thoughts with a caring person or two around you will be profound and help you regain perspective again.
  • Develop YOUR pre exam routines. Everyone is different so reflect on past exams and try to plan the last 12-24 hours before an exam so you can set yourself up in a positive way. Remember, this is to help YOU perform and I have found that avoiding conversations with others before exams protects you from distractions. Likewise, avoiding the ‘post mortem’ discussions afterwards can save you from a lot of worry where you hear how others approached questions. Keep it simple and clear so your mind is ready to serve you well under pressure.
  • Questions, questions, questions. In the exam, the only thing that matters is the question. Ignore the student fidgetting around you, ignore that person scribbling at a million miles an hour. This is between you and the question at hand. If you start hearing the ‘I will fail’ story, breathe deeply, notice the thoughts, gently let them go, then return to the question and give it your best shot. You will definitely feel better having written something rather than having tied your mind up in knots.
  • It’s not life and death. Yes, of course you want to do your best but I want to share one secret you might not hear from some people around you: If you try your best but don’t get the result you were hoping for, it will not be the end of the world. For many of us, trying to remember an English or Maths result ten years down the track was impossible. The best you can do is helping yourself do the best you can do; trying to achieve to impress or compete with others around you is rarely a healthy strategy. As a performance psychologist, I can also tell you that the more we focus on possible outcomes, the more we risk performing poorly.

Good luck!

If you need further support during this time, don’t forget to ask for help and reach out to someone to talk to, whether it be family, friends, your school counsellor, GP or a psychologist like myself.

Many of us still remember what that time was like and will gladly offer support, encouragement and practical tools.

And if you missed the news stories today, here’s one of them.

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