Exams and Mental Health Blog

As soon as Christmas is out the way the push begins towards exam season. Schools step up their preparation, parents and families begin discussing them more, and for young people the stress and anxiety levels increase. What’s important in this preparation time is that we ensure that the mental wellbeing of the person takes priority. Too much stress and anxiety produces cortisol in our brain which affects our memory, which in turn will affect exam performance. Here are some basic guidelines which will help ensure that student mental health doesn’t become an issue around exams.

  1. Ensure the young person doesn’t feel that any love or respect for them is dependent on the exam results. We all want to be loved and sometimes they can feel that this love will be taken away or reduced if they don’t achieve a certain standard. They may not have specifically been told that, but subconscious messages can infer that without us realising. Love should never be conditional on exam results.

  2. Recognise that the exams are a stepping stone and not the be all and end all. There is always an opportunity to retake them or follow another path if the expected grades are not as achieved. Hearing messages that ‘the rest of your life depends on these exams’ is not only untrue, but also detrimental to the wellbeing of students. Exams are one sign of a persons worth and not the only sign. We need to remember that. I speak to middle aged and older people now who are still feel stigmatised by failing the 11+, that they aren’t very clever because of this. We must ensure that this isn’t the case for our young people today.

  3. Positive motivation always improves performance more than negative. Think about top athletes – their motivational talk before an event doesn’t consist of ‘well you haven’t put enough work into preparation, so you will probably lose, and you could have done so much better’. It consists of positive motivation, believing, inspiring. What we think and believe has a massive effect on our performance. All too often, as teachers and parents, we believe that we have to warn students of the awful impact if they don’t revise enough. How many people they will be letting down. This doesn’t work. It increases anxiety and stress. Anxiety and stress produces cortisol, too much cortisol affects the memory.

  4. Maintain a social life and relaxation time during revision and the exam season. We all need a well-balanced life, and this becomes even more necessary during stressful times. We need a break, we need to meet with friends and laugh. We need distraction. Isolation during revision time isn’t healthy and there is lots of brain chemical research that reinforces this. Social isolation and ruminative negative thinking are key factors in mental health issues.

When we are socially isolated, negative thinking can increase so take regular breaks and meet people, do fun activities.

  1. Teach students how to manage stress and anxiety. Discuss how it is a normal part of life and small amounts can be positive. However, it must not become overwhelming. When a young person tells you they are stressed/anxious hear them and acknowledge it then discuss the stress. Don’t say ‘you have nothing to worry about’ or ‘you don’t know what stress is really, wait till you’re older’. Ask them specifically what they are worried about, how likely is it to come true and what will they do if it does come true. Anxiety is about fear of the unknown and not knowing what to do, not being in control. Developing a plan for each scenario reduces the anxiety. Sometimes people believe that giving an ‘easier option’ will mean they won’t try as hard. This isn’t true because the positive motivation will spur them on! Ultimately always reinforce that whatever happens they will be ok and they will be loved.

  2. When results come in don’t do the ‘yeah but’. Yeah you did well but think of how well you could have done if you had really worked hard at it. Celebrate the achievement and getting through it. If the results aren’t as expected look at alternatives. There is always an alternative. Many people I know took a different path to what was expected and were glad they did! There were exams I didn’t pass first time and that’s ok. It didn’t hinder my life.

Exam time is a stressful time but we can make it easier by being supporting and positive. When we fall in love with someone or make new friends, we don’t ask them what their exams results are, and if they aren’t good enough, we reject them. Exams are a stepping stone in life and not worth damaged mental health that can stay with you for a lifetime.

Exam Anxiety – keep looking after yourself!

The exams are underway! A stressful time for many students and parents. Anxiety, stress and nerves are completely normal but for some they will be overwhelming.  When it becomes overwhelming our brains can produce lots of cortisol, the stress hormone, which impacts our memory.  So how can we help now? Is it too late? Well no, it’s not.

Anxiety is a fear. Fear of the unknown. Fear of not being able to deal with something terrible happening. Fear that you will look stupid. Fear that you will be unlovable if you don’t pass all your exams. Fear that you will let people down if you don’t achieve a certain grade.  Fear that people will think less of you if you aren’t as clever as they think.  The fear doesn’t have to be rational – it is real for the person thinking it. Whether you or I understand it is irrelevant. It’s what they are feeling. Sometimes this fear is so great they would rather not even try.  I have worked with students who refuse to write anything - if they don’t try they can’t fail and their fear can’t come true.  They are happier in their comfort zone of not doing anything, even if that feels illogical to us.

Anyone around young people during the time of their exams must keeping saying their exams are a stepping stone, they do no define who they are, and they are loved regardless of the result.  Too many students are told the rest of their life depends on their results.  They don’t. I’m in my forties (yes I know I don’t look it) and nobody cares that I failed my Science exam first time.   It is also crucial young people know their value is not their results, that we won’t love them any less if they don’t do as well as expected.  And don’t think ‘well yes I am sure they know that’, they don’t. They don’t know it. Tell them. Regularly.  The love/respect I have for you is not dependent on your exam results.  And it’s not.  I didn’t decide to marry my husband because he got good GCSE grades.  In fact, I don’t even know what grades he got.  Or my friends grades! Who actually says to someone “I like you a little bit less cos you didn’t get an A in History?”   Reassure them they are loved and respected no matter what their results. 

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We can also help by ensuring students maintain a healthy life balance up to and during exams.  Constantly studying is not healthy physically and mentally.  We have to have fun regularly. We have to do things we enjoy.  We all need a break from the constant stress and pressure. Particularly when that stress and pressure is intense. Having fun and feeling relaxed produces good happy chemicals which helps improve our brains and memories. Research shows that watching funny happy videos before an exam improves performance.  As part of the health lifestyle also try to maintain a regular sleep pattern and have breakfast!!  Brains need food.

We also have to think about the language we use.  Don’t permanently use negative language as a motivator.  Think about sports people before big events.  Are they motivated by saying “You haven’t done enough, and you will probably fail” or “You’re not very good really and you may not win” or “You are the worst team I have ever worked with”?  No! They are motivated by visualising winning and being positive.  Don’t put the negative idea in the head, put the positive. 

Practice relaxing breathing should anxiety come during and exam.  The simplest one is to count as you breathe in and out and just make sure you breathe out for a longer count than you breathe in. That’s it.  There is some fabulous scientific reason why breathing out for longer is important, but I haven’t got a clue what it is.

We also need to think and prepare for results day. Anxiety doesn’t end just because the exams have finished. Anxiety around results day can be just as debilitating. Relief the exams are over can be temporary respite. As results day comes closer the anxiety is likely to start to increase.    Remember anxiety is fear of the unknown.  Reassurance that whatever the result, they will be OK is vital.   Discuss all possible results options and what they can do in each scenario.  This is really important.  The number of students who haven’t been told all their post results options would surprise you.  Often, we don’t want to discuss it as we don’t want to give them ‘an easier way out’, they have to aspire to the best option only.  This doesn’t work, it only compounds the anxiety. It increases the pressure which affects performance.  Many students believe they can never take that exam again.  They only count once in school league tables, but they can certainly be taken again and there are many post exam options.

Overwhelming anxiety is real for a lot of people. The correct support can make all the difference.  The most important message?  Regardless of your results you will be OK, and you will be loved.

Sam Garner - May 2018