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We all know what it's like to feel stressed, but it's not easy to pin down exactly what stress means. When we say things like "this is stressful" or "I'm stressed", we might be talking about the following:
- Situations or events that put pressure on us – for example, times when we have lots to do and think about, or don't have much control over what happens.
- Our reaction to being placed under pressure – the feelings we get when we have demands placed on us that we find difficult to cope with. “It's overwhelming. Sometimes you can't see beyond the thick fog of stress.”
There's no medical definition of stress, and healthcare professionals often disagree over whether stress is the cause of problems or the result of them. This can make it difficult for you to work out what causes your feelings of stress, or how to deal with them. But whatever your personal definition of stress is, it's likely that you can learn to manage your stress better by:
- managing external pressures, so stressful situations don't seem to happen to you quite so often
- developing your emotional resilience, so you're better at coping with tough situations when they do happen and don't feel quite so stressed
Is stress a mental health problem?
Being under pressure is a normal part of life. It can help you take action, feel more energised and get results. But if you often become overwhelmed by stress, these feelings could start to be a problem for you.
Stress isn't a psychiatric diagnosis, but it's closely linked to your mental health in two important ways:
- Stress can cause mental health problems, and make existing problems worse. For example, if you often struggle to manage feelings of stress, you might develop a mental health problem like anxiety or depression.
- Mental health problems can cause stress. You might find coping with the day-to-day symptoms of your mental health problem, as well as potentially needing to manage medication, healthcare appointments or treatments, can become extra sources of stress.
This can start to feel like a vicious circle, and it might be hard to see where stress ends and your mental health problem begins.
Why does stress affect me physically?
You might find that your first clues about being stressed are physical signs, such as tiredness, headaches or an upset stomach.
There could be many reasons for this, as when we feel stressed we often find it hard to sleep or eat well, and poor diet and lack of sleep can both affect our physical health. This in turn can make us feel more stressed emotionally.
Also, when we feel anxious, our bodies release hormones called cortisol and adrenaline. This is the body’s automatic way of preparing to respond to a threat, sometimes called the 'fight, flight or freeze' response. If you’re often stressed then you’re probably producing high levels of these hormones, which can make you feel physically unwell and could affect your health in the longer term. If you experience these feelings regularly you should speak with your GP.
Exam Stress & tips for coping
1. Keep it in perspective -
- Lots of people will tell you this, because it's true - exams aren't everything. Whatever happens in your exams, you can still be successful in life afterwards. So if you don't do as well as you'd hoped, try to keep things in perspective.
- Employers don't just look at your exam scores. They're just as interested in your attitude, your transferable skills and how well you'll get on with other people.
- Exam success doesn't define you as a person. Everyone copes differently in different situations and there's so much more to your personality than how well you can respond to an exam.
- Think about how far you've come already. You've already done incredibly well to get to university, and stopping or failing exams at this point isn't 'throwing away' your past success.
- Once you've done an exam, try to forget about it. There's nothing you can do about it, and worrying won't change your mark.
2. Get that organised feeling -
- Picture your exams as a time-bound project. Are the exams 60 days away? That's your 60-day challenge. Best of all, there's a definite end point.
- Work out the basics: which exams you have, how the marks are allocated, and how much you have to learn for each one. Don't expect to learn everything; but having in mind where you'll get the marks can help you prioritise.
- Break your revision down into small chunks, and form a plan. Once you've got a plan, you won't have any more dilemmas at the start of the day about what to work on.
- Schedule in plenty of free time to unwind, and protect this time. Nobody can work all day every day. If you give yourself plenty of rest you can do the same amount of work in half the time or less.
- Equally, don't panic if you go slightly off schedule - tomorrow is another day.
3. Get into some good habits - These habits will help you concentrate as well as reducing stress:
- Take frequent breaks. Psychologists say we can only concentrate properly for 30-45 minutes. You could use a technique like Pomodoro, that helps you to take regular breaks. When you do take a break make sure you don’t stay at your desk, you could go for a walk or even just make a cup of tea!
- Eat well. Keep a good blood sugars level to avoid highs and lows of energy, by eating slow-release foods like bread, rice, pasta, fruit and veg.
- Drink lots of water. People often underestimate how much hydration helps!
- Think about when and where you work best. Not everyone is a morning person, and some people don’t find the library a productive place to work. There's no one best place or time to work - it's about what works for you.
- Keep active. Even a short walk will do. Exercising is one of the quickest and most effective ways to de-stress. Fresh air will clear your head and perk you up.
- Try to get about 8 hours' sleep a night. If you're stressed about not being able to sleep, there are lots of ways to aid a good night's sleep.
- Find activities that help you relax. Maybe it's a hot bath, watching a TV show, or a creative activity. Schedule this down-time into your timetable.
4. Avoid bad habits -
- Don't set yourself ridiculous goals. Nobody can revise 10 topics in a day! Avoid setting the day up to be a disappointment.
- Don't cut out all the enjoyment from your life. It's tempting to decide you'll just knuckle down to work and "focus", but this is counterproductive - it's impossible to focus without giving your brain rest by doing other activities.
- Avoid stimulants. Caffeine, alcohol and drugs impede your energy and concentration in the long term. It'll also make it more difficult to get that much-needed sleep.
5. Get support from friends and family
- Don't be put off by friends saying that they are doing huge amounts of revision. As already mentioned, that's probably not actually a productive or efficient way of working long term. One of the key reasons people feel exam stress is due to comparing themselves to other people.
- If you can, discuss with your parents what they are expecting you to achieve. Parents with steep or unrealistic expectations will just add unnecessary pressure. It's helpful to let them know what you think you have the capacity to achieve, and to insist that the best way to get there is to have support from your parents, not pressure.
- If you're feeling really worried or anxious, chat to a good friend, family member, or tutor. It helps to get it out of your system, and they may well be able to help think about practical strategies to deal with exam stress.