How to release exam stress – 7 things you can do to feel calm and in control
Exam season is one of the most stressful times most GCSE and A-Level students have ever experienced in their short lives. It's also a very stressful time for the mums and dads guiding them through it.
In this article, I'm going to share with you three ways to deal with the stress in the here and now – breaking the stress cycle so that you get rid of those horrible stressy feelings and are calm and in control.
The difference between stress and stressors
There are two ways to manage stress:
- Removing/managing the things in your life that cause you stress. These are called stressors.
- Removing the feeling of stress when it arises. This is called breaking the stress cycle.
In this post, I'm going to focus on breaking the stress cycle. This is because you can't really remove the thing that's causing you stress from your life during exam season (exams) but you can do something to dissolved those horrible stressy feelings.
That being said, I would recommend that you try to remove any possible stressors from your life before exam season begins e.g. people who stress you out, a part-time job that just feels like too much etc.
What is the stress cycle?
The stress cycle is what happens to your body as you go through this process:
- Something happens to make you feel stressed e.g. sitting an exam
- Your body goes tense, you go on high alert, your heart starts beating faster, your breathing is shallow plus any other number of symptoms
- The stress dissipates
In their book, Burnout: The Secret to solving the stress cycle authors and sisters Emily and Amelia Nagoski, describe 7 scientifically validated ways to break your stress cycle. That's what we're going to talk about today. (I'd highly recommend the book – particularly to mums – it's written for women in a very entertaining by informative way).
The importance of breaking the stress cycle
If you don't take one of the seven actions I highlight below to break the stress cycle when you feel stress in your body, the stress will linger. This can do huge amounts of damage to your body and your mind, impacting both your physical and mental health.
Therefore, if you want to stay healthy and succeed in your exams in the long term (because you're not going to do very well in an exam if you're in the fight/flight/freeze high-stress state) it's vital that you build these actions into your routine during exam season.
How to release exam stress – 7 things you can do to feel calm and in control
If you can imagine humans in their natural environment before we had computers, smartphones, brick houses and exams, most of the stresses that humans experienced would have been threats to life e.g. a predator such as a wolf attacking them for food.
If this happened, people would go into the fight/flight/freeze stress response – also known as the sympathetic nervous system.
- Fight – attack the wolf to make it go away
- Flight – run away from the world
- Freeze – play dead
When the wolf had gone away and was no longer a threat you can imagine the people having a big party.
They would have danced, played music and sung songs. They might have cried with relief as they talked to their friends and families about the danger they were in and what they could have lost. They would have found themselves relaxing, breathing deeper and laughing with their the people around them as the celebration went on.
All of these things are ways to break the stress cycle and get them back into a non-stressy state (also known as a parasympathetic state) where they're relaxed, breathing easy and able to go about their normal lives.
Let's go through each of them one-by-one – as each one on it's own can break your stress cycle (and, maybe you can put them all together and have a big party once exam season is over).
1. Using physical activity to release exam stress
As the Nagoski sisters say in their book:
“Physical activity is what tells your brain you have successfully survived the threat and now your body is a safe place to live. Physical activity is the single most efficient strategy for completing the stress cycle.” (Bold is mine).
So, if you're feeling stressed in exam season, what physical activity can you build into every day? Here are some ideas:
- A 30-minute run or brisk walk
- A 7 minute HIIT session, if you're short on time
- Lifting some weights
- A sweaty yoga session
The ideas is it should get you out of breath and preferably sweating.
If you can't do something every day – how many days per week can you do it?
Put physical activity into your revision plan as a non-negotiable. I promise you, you'll feel better and be able to revise more effectively if you move your body every day.Put physical activity into your revision plan as a non-negotiable. I promise you, you'll feel better and be able to revise more effectively if you move your body every day. Click To Tweet
2. How to release exam stress through breathing
Slow, deep breathing is another really effective way to break the stress cycle. The key here is to make your out-breath longer than your in-breath.
Make your out-breath longer than your in-breath
A simple thing you can do is breath in for the count of 4 and breathe out for the count of 5-8 – the more you practice this and the less stressed you get you'll be able to make the out-breath last longer.
Try the Breathwrk app which has other breathing exercises to help you feel calm, focused or sleepy.
I've also just learned from the Wim Hof Fundamentals course this method of calming yourself when you're stressed:
- Count your breaths for 1 minute. If you breathe 15-20 times in a minute that's a sure sign you're stressed.
- Now, for one minute take a deep breath in and hum it out. Do this as many times as you need to for a minute. You'll probably find you only need to breathe in 4-6 times using this method. You've slowed your breath down and the humming helps to calm your vagus nerve, which is a nerve that comes out of your brain and is very sensitive to stress.
You know how little children, when they're upset, will breathe in twice and then let out a sigh? They feel much calmer after this and you can do it too.
Take a deep breath in, pause and breath in again without having let going of the first breath. Then sigh it out, a nice big loud sigh.
This is a really quick way to release stress e.g. before you go into an exam.
I learned this technique from Pamela Rose.
3. Release exam stress by being friendly!
You know those everyday conversations that we've missed so much during the pandemic? The “Hello, how are you?”, banter and general small-talk?
Well, it turns out positive social interaction is a huge stress reliever. So, instead of staring at your phone on the bus, chat to the person next to you, make conversation with the cashier selling you your lunch and say “Hi!” when you see a dog-walker.
All of this will help you feel less stressed.
4. How to release exam stress through laughter
Laughter has a really powerful impact on stress – busting it into tiny little pieces. Check out my episode on laughter yoga – which is just basically making yourself laugh and sounding a bit like a loon! You could also listen to or watch something funny, have a tickling match with your siblings or play Twister – that always makes people laugh.
5. Hug your exam stress away
Hugs and kisses are a great way of relieving stress (and one of my personal favourites). Hugging someone for 20 seconds, or until you feel relaxed is really effective. It also works with pets – so if you don't fancy hugging a human, cuddle your cat (or dog) instead.
6. How to release exam stress through tears
It might not sound very cheerful, but if you feel like crying, let yourself. It's a fantastic release of emotion. I've also had people suggest that you shout really loudly, or scream at least once per day just to let the stress and frustration out.
I know that when I cry I always feel better afterwards. Don't stop yourself from crying just to ‘be strong' – let that negative emotion out, break the stress cycle and you can put that particular stressful episode behind you rather than letting it linger in your system.
7. Release your exam stress by being creative
What's your favourite creative pursuit? Is it painting, music, dance, sewing? It's not by accident that songs and art share emotion – they're born out of what people are feeling.
So, if you're feeling stressed lose yourself in creativity and you'll feel better very soon.
How to release exam stress – over to you!
Now it's over to you to put these stress-busting techniques into practice. Use them as often as you feel stressed in life, but in exam season try to make sure you do at least one of them once per day so that you relieve your stress as you go along, sleep better and focus better on what you've got to do to show the world how brilliant you are!
If you need help with study skills and revision techniques, which will further reduce your stress because as you're studying in a way that works and you have confidence in how you'll perform in exams, check out The Extraordinaries Club my online hub where I teach the study skills, habits and mindset to help GCSE and A-Level students reach their full academic potential.