Managing Anxiety During The Exam Period
Updated: Aug 14, 2020
It's nearly that time of year again. You can almost hear 8 weeks of pure relaxation calling your name. But, you've got one last hurdle to overcome. EXAMS. (Or, the equally dreaded, coursework).
It's entirely normal to feel overwhelmed at this time of year, especially when the already-stressful-enough exam period is coupled with a global pandemic. The affect that stress and anxiety have on academic achievement can be described as cyclical, or bi-directional. Increased stress levels affect ability to perform well academically, poor academic performance leads to increased levels of stress and anxiety, and so on and so forth.
Scientific evidence suggests that the impact that stress has on our ability to perform cognitive functions (such as, concentration, memory, ect.) is affected not by the presence of stress but by our response to this stress. Moderate levels of stress can improve academic performance, while extreme responses can lead to low performance (Cibrian-Llanderal et al., 2017).
The relationship between stress and performance is clearly demonstrated in the Inverted-U theory diagram below (Yerkes & Dodson, 1908)
So, we've established that having too much (or too little) stress isn't great. But how can we manage our stress reaction?
Stress has a physiological impact on our body, and there's many practical changes we can make to regulate stress levels and improve our wellbeing.
Look After Your Physical Health
Exercise releases endorphins, as well as reducing the body's level of stress hormones, cortisol and adrenaline. Even 30 minutes of moderate exercise has been shown to increase mood and improve sleep.
Cut down on caffeine & alcohol
It can be tempting to use caffeine and alcohol as coping strategies, either to increase productivity or as a relaxation technique. However, both caffeine and alcohol can have a negative impact on your wellbeing.
Caffeine mimics the effects of anxiety by increasing your heart rate, alertness and impairing your ability to sleep.
Alcohol depresses the Central Nervous System, making it more difficult to regulate your mood. Additionally, long term alcohol use can deplete serotonin levels - a key chemical in depression.
For more information, check out this article by the Mental Health Foundation.
Manage Your Time
This is a method utilised in Cognitive Behavioural Therapy. It involves breaking a big task into smaller, more manageable ones, whilst using positive reinforcements to encourage helpful behaviours. Each step builds on the previous step, so you can gain confidence and motivation as you go.
For example, you might have a goal to produce a 2,000 word essay. Using the successive-approximations method, you can break this task into smaller sections, and reward yourself with breaks or treats in-between tasks. This method works, as each paragraph is like a smaller version of the whole task. Eventually, you'll be able to complete multiple paragraphs (or even a whole essay) in one sitting.
Keeping a routine can really help with managing anxiety, and ensure that you're keeping to a regular sleep schedule. It's also a good idea to schedule activities throughout the week to ensure that you're giving yourself time for self-care and other helpful behaviours. By incorporating these into your schedule, it increases the likelihood of actually doing them.
Keep a Positive Outlook
It can be difficult to maintain a positive frame of mind when faced with assessments, but it's one of the best ways to remain motivated and determined.
Challenge Unhelpful Thoughts
It's important to identify and monitor unhelpful thinking patterns as these lead to increased instances of anxiety. Catastrophising and black-and-white thinking are both common negative thinking patterns.
Catastrophising: This is a cognitive distortion which leads you to jump to the worst possible conclusion. It can make tasks feel overwhelming and daunting, and lead to a spiral of anxiety.
Black and White Thinking: This is a cognitive distortion in which you view situations in extremes. For example, things are either right or wrong, good or bad.
As with all unhelpful thinking patterns, it's important to challenge these negative thoughts. In the case of catastrophising, you need to view the situation more objectively. You can do this by challenging the likelihood of the worst-case scenario actually happening, and interrupting the spiral of negative thoughts.
With black-and-white thinking, it's important to take the middle-ground in situations and to recognise that they are rarely entirely one way or another.
Watch Your Language
Using language like 'should' and 'must' can lead to unnecessary pressure and feelings of guilt. It's important to be conscious of how you interact with yourself, and how that 'internal voice' can impact your mood. Try and use phrases such as 'I would like to complete X' or 'I will try my best to X'.
By decreasing the pressure you put on yourself, you decrease your overall levels of anxiety - allowing your cognitive functions to work as effectively as possible.
These are all practical changes you can make to improve your mental health and wellbeing over the exam period.
If you would like to discuss any of these in more detail, please contact your Student Wellbeing Adviser here: https://www.sheffield.ac.uk/ssid/wellbeing
Student Wellbeing Adviser - Faculty of Social Sciences