A mentally healthy approach to exams
By Natalie Hunt, Mental Health & Wellbeing Coordinator

As part of my role as Mental Health and Wellbeing Coordinator, I have been working with students in our OX14 Learning Partnership on strategies for managing anxiety and stress, particularly those in years 11 to 13. One of the key messages of my work is that some stress is normal and can be good for us; it can motivate us, enhance our focus and drive us to achieve our goals or implement change. Some anxiety around GCSE and A-level exams is completely justified – exam results matter. Ideally, we want to have just the right amount of stress to give our best performance, but if we are not careful, prolonged or frequent stress can leave us exhausted, anxious and at risk of burnout, as demonstrated by the Yerkes Dodson Law shown above.

Learning to manage stress and anxiety is a crucial life skill; many of us are on the endless journey to find the perfect work/life balance (if you’ve mastered this, let me know) and improve our overall well-being. But, in a world where we are accessible 24/7, maintaining boundaries between work and life is harder than ever. This was made clear during the Covid-19 lockdowns where work hours increased globally, despite many people gaining time from not having to commute. With the economic burden of mental health issues in the workplace, many industries are now exploring options for reduced hours and a 4 day working week. Studies indicate that when employees work less hours, they are more productive and satisfied with their work.

So how can we best prepare our young people, not only for their exams, but for developing a mentally healthy approach to work in the future? Below are some evidence based strategies that can be used daily for ridding the body of excessive stress:

  1. Movement (this can be gentle or sweaty, whatever works for you).
  2. Mindful breathing – try sitting quietly and, over the course of 1 to 2 minutes, breathe in for 5 seconds and breathe out for 7 seconds. Try and do this 3 times a day to slow down your body’s stress response.
  3. Social interaction – be with people who make you feel good. Laughter and affection lower cortisol levels and increase oxytocin.
  4. Creativity – do something creative or just enjoy listening to music. Doing something you enjoy mindfully can quieten loud, negative thoughts.
  5. Crying – having a good cry releases endorphins (the same chemical we get when we exercise) and can instantly improve our mood.
  6. Get outside – get outside for bursts of natural light throughout the day to immediately improve your focus and mood.
  7. Prioritise your sleep – without enough sleep, we CANNOT function well. Aim for at least 8 hours per night, plan when you need to be asleep and try to wind down (without tech) 1-2 hours before you sleep.

When I ask students what they do for pleasure and relaxation, many struggle to give me a clear answer. When we explore this further, it is clear that, like so many of us, students lean towards their smartphones, TV and other online activities as a source of distraction or numbing as opposed to intentional pleasure. With so much distraction available at the touch of a button, we can lose hours of so-called ‘downtime’ without reaping any cognitive benefits. It can also impact our quality and quantity of sleep. I suggest to students that they think carefully about what brings them real pleasure and enjoyment and to do this mindfully after a period of work, to rest and restore their focus and to boost positive chemicals like oxytocin and endorphins. If they want to go online, it is best to do this with clear intention, setting time limits and paying careful attention to their stress response (is scrolling Instagram making you feel good?). This also helps to create more self-awareness of when we procrastinate or distract ourselves by mindlessly reaching for our devices. With greater awareness of these behaviours, we are more likely to develop a healthy relationship with technology and use it to benefit, rather than rob, us of our focus and trigger negative thought patterns.

In ‘Yes You Can’, mental health activist and writer, Natasha Devon MBE outlines some simple ideas for managing revision and study:

Prioritise your work. Make three lists:

  1. Subjects/topics I love
  2. Subjects/topics I hate
  3. Subjects/topics I’m behind on

If you’re finding it hard to get going, you might want to start with a subject you enjoy, but aim to study the subjects you’re behind on/hate first. As James Clear suggests in Atomic Habits, just taking one small step, such as writing one sentence, can make a huge difference to overall productivity and progress.

Have a pre-work routine:

  1. Brain Dump – talk to someone or write down any negative thoughts from the day.
  2. Change – get into comfortable clothes (i.e. NOT your uniform).
  3. Re-fuel – eat/drink for sustained energy. Avoid caffeine/sugar/junk food where possible.

Manage your time:

During term time, aim for no more than 2.5 hours’ revision per night and always take breaks. This could be done a number of ways:

  • 1 hour study – 30 min break – 1 hour study
  • 40 min study – 20 min break – 40 min study – 10 min break – 40 min study
  • 30 min study – 10 min break x 4

Set yourself up to succeed:

Make a list of distractions and remove them whilst you are working. It might mean tidying your room, putting your phone in another room or into airplane mode and asking others in your house to help by being quiet or not disturbing you. If you’re working on a computer and find other websites (e.g. YouTube) too tempting, then you can go to https://freedom.to/ to block certain websites for a short period of time, to help sustain your focus.

Copies of ‘Yes You Can’ by Natasha Devon are available in the school library.

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