The Leaving Cert is up and running, and we want to help you look after your mental health. It's natural to feel some stress during this important time of year, but here are some ways to manage it.
Maeve Dwan O'Reilly, Daráine Murphy and Professor Eilis Hennessy from the Youth Mental Health Lab, School of Psychology in UCD have written this article especially for RTÉ Learn.
Managing exam time: Advice from the UCD Youth Mental Health Lab
Sitting state exams can be a stressful time. It is important to remind yourself that stress and anxiety around exams is normal and even necessary!
Stress and anxiety are reactions that can happen when we feel unsafe or threatened about something. In the context of exams, we feel stressed around the uncertainty of the exam; "What if my poet doesn’t come up in English?" or "Will I get enough points to get my college course?".
The best thing to do is first of all, become aware of what is making you stressed, accept that it is normal to feel this way and then try to manage your stress.
Here are some tips to help:
1. Stress can be your friend!
The first thing to remember about stress is that it is normal, and it can even be useful, in moderation. Stress is the body’s way of telling us that this situation is different and that it is stepping up to meet the challenge.
A certain level of stress can help us focus and can give us the extra energy we need. The problem is when the stress keeps going and going or when we get too stressed - this is when stress can hinder our performance.
2. Put yourself first
When you’re going through a stressful time, like exam time, it can be tempting to say, "I can go for a walk when this is all done", "I’ll get plenty of sleep after the exams." NO! You need to look after yourself.
Not only is this just generally important, but it will also help you perform better in the exams. Remember, stress is your body getting ready to deal with whatever the challenge is, but it can’t keep that up for long periods of time.
You need to take breaks, eat well, and get lots of sleep. You’ll focus better, you’ll feel better, and your body and brain will thank you! Some ideas:
- Make sure to get plenty of exercise - why not meet a friend for a walk?
- Limit caffeine, it might be tempting but remember it can impact on your sleep, make you more anxious and upset your stomach. Also remember to drink lots of water!
- Try to get a good night's sleep by getting to bed early, limiting screen time before bed and taking time to relax and unwind.
- Do something nice for yourself, turn on a movie, have a treat, whatever makes you happy.
3. Don’t forget to breathe
Stress is your body getting ready for a challenge, but sometimes it’s too much, too fast and you go past the point of it being useful and into panic mode.
If this happens you need to stop and ground yourself. Breathing exercises can be great – try breathing in slowly for four seconds, hold for seven seconds and breathe out slowly for eight seconds, and repeat.
It is important to breathe slowly and deeply. Place your hand on your stomach and feel it rise and fall with each slow breath. There are some great apps to help with meditation like Headspace and Calm!
4. Feeling overwhelmed, that’s okay - you got this!
If you are in the exam hall and things are not going to plan or just before the exam you find yourself panicking it is important to realise that again this a normal reaction and nothing bad can happen!
Some useful ways of managing this anxious feeling and bringing yourself back to the present are: focus on your senses – what can you hear? (Listen to the sound of a clock ticking or the examiner walking around the hall) What can you see? (Count the tiles on the ceiling) What can you smell? (What does the exam hall smell like?). Make small movements eg wiggle your toes and notice how this feels.
Remember to keep breathing! Take a minute or two to do this and when you’re ready, go back to the paper. When you go back to write, just focus on one small bit at a time.
5. Thank you, next
Sometimes when we’re stressed, there will be all kinds of thoughts coming up. When you’re studying you might have thoughts about failing, or that there aren’t enough hours in the day.
Try to remember that these thoughts are just thoughts. They aren’t facts and they aren’t "bad thoughts", they just aren’t helpful right now. When thoughts like this come up, don’t try to push them away, we all know what happens when you try to not think about something, just take a moment and notice the thought and then ask yourself "is this a helpful thought right now?"
Educational psychologist, Dr Elizabeth Charles, recently told us this fantastic way to think about unhelpful thoughts: Imagine your thoughts are like cars. You’re standing by the road and a car/ thought pulls up. Ask yourself - do I want to go where this car will take me? If not, just thank that car for stopping and let it drive away. As Ari once said: "Thank you, next."
6. The struggle is real - be kind to yourself!
Don’t be hard on yourself if an exam doesn’t go to plan (you might even have done better than you think!). It can be really easy for unhelpful thoughts like, "I should have studied harder", to spiral out of control after an exam.
Remember, these are not facts and they’re not helpful.
Focus on the positives:
- You did the best you could.
- You are one more exam down.
- You have just gone through a really stressful exam and have come out the other side.
It is important to remember too that while the Leaving Certificate is important there are always alternative routes to courses if you don’t get the points.
AND remember, you are not alone...
Remember if you are feeling stressed and anxious you don’t have to go through it alone. Reach out and talk to someone you can trust like a parent, family member, teacher or a friend.