''Tis the season for exam anxiety – but we need to remind our pupils that it's completely normal to feel stressed'

With Sats and GCSEs just around the corner, pupils will be feeling anxious, stressed and exhausted. Here, our mental health expert Natasha Devon sets out her top tips for tackling exam anxiety

Natasha Devon

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If I were education secretary, exams would be severely minimised, if not abolished entirely.

You see, exams don’t give an indication of much that matters. They don’t measure intelligence or progress, merely the ability to remember specific, fairly arbitrary information under timed conditions. (I’m saying this as a person who performs well in tests because I have good recall, which is how I managed to salvage the three years of severe and untreated mental health difficulties and self-medicinal inebriation that characterised my time at university and emerge with a decent degree). Until such time as the limitations of exams are more broadly accepted, however, 'tis the season for teachers and pupils alike to be extremely anxious.

In recent years, I’ve noticed that academic anxiety has usurped body image concerns and bullying to top young people’s list of mental health-related concerns. However, as research conducted by Chris Jeffrey during his time as head of the Grange School in Hartford showed, stress around academic performance is most often self-generated – ie, it comes from pupils placing pressure on themselves, rather than from teachers or parents.

There are lots of reasons this might be happening, but my suspicion is that it’s a combination of young people having a greater awareness of their significantly diminished future socio-economic prospects (because of social media) which in turn magnifies concerns about being at the top of the academic pile and the school system itself becoming more exam-focussed. Neither of these is an easy problem to address, so, in the meantime, below are some tips for helping students to manage exam-related anxiety:

1. Identify what exactly is causing the stress

"Exam stress" is a broad-reaching term and could mean any number of things. One exercise I find useful is to get young people to write down everything that is worrying them and to divide the worries into three lists (using highlighter pens to make it 10 per cent funner):

  1. Things that they have direct control over:  "I have not done enough revision" (only they can fix that)
  2. Things they need someone else’s help to fix: "I don’t understand this module/topic" (they can ask a member of staff or another pupil for some help to catch up)
  3. Things that they have no control over whatsoever: "What if I don’t get the grade I need and don’t get into uni?" (after all, they can only do their best)

Often, I ask them to rip or screw up the third list in a symbolic act. This leads me to…

2. Help them to understand that focusing on their grade or what happens after will actually hinder their exam performance

Psychological studies have shown that if you use extrinsic incentives (like money) to try and improve a person’s performance while engaged in a creative endeavour (such as problem-solving), thinking about the reward actually stops them focusing on the task in hand.

This seems paradoxical, but it’s widely accepted that you can’t extrinsically motivate someone into a better performance unless the task is fairly mundane and doesn’t require much brain power (which obviously excludes exams). It, therefore, follows that, as counterintuitive as it might seem, encouraging pupils to relax and just try their best will get them objectively the best grade they are capable of.

3. Emphasise the importance of downtime

In her video on the topic of exam stress, Dr Pooky Knightsmith talks about the importance of taking regular breaks and of building time for recreation into a pupil’s revision plan.

Not only is this advantageous for their mental health, it will also help them learn more effectively. Sleep and relaxation is when the conscious mind ‘downloads’ information into the unconscious, where it can be stored in long-term memory. Similarly, our recall is higher at the beginning and end of a session of study. To keep concentration high, it’s better to study for two sessions of 25 minutes with a 10-minute break in between than to go through an entire hour without a break.

During revision and exam time, it’s more important than ever to keep up hobbies like sport or music. They represent an important outlet for stress and a way to maintain good mental health.

4. Emphasise that exam stress might not be pleasant, but it is normal

Author and mental health campaigner Lucy Nichol tweeted last week “anxiety is….dry mouth and racing heart as you get your exam results. An anxiety disorder is….believing that a dry mouth is going to kill you”.

Anxiety is a normal and, in many cases, useful emotion. Similarly, the aim shouldn’t be to avoid stress altogether but to minimise its impact and emerge unscathed. As Dr Knightsmith points out, for many pupils, their exams represent the first time they get a lesson in learning how to manage their own stress. Encourage them to own and experience the feeling and to think about what might help them cope.

5. Look after your mental health

During the summer term, pupils and teachers often exist in an ever-spiralling stress circle, where one’s anxiety magnifies the other’s until it reaches the point where, if I’m visiting in June or July, it’s uncomfortably palpable (and, in turn, makes me feel really anxious).

It’s not selfish to prioritise your own mental wellbeing, ever. After all, you’re no use to anyone broken. Guidelines from Mental Health First Aid England, one of the leading organisations in the UK on workplace stress management, recommend that everyone (absolutely everyone) takes an hour every day for self-care. Self-care is essentially any activity which relaxes you, for example, reading, walking the dog, having a bath, chatting with a friend on the phone, going to the gym.

These things aren’t indulgent, they represent essential maintenance of education’s most precious asset – YOU.

Natasha Devon MBE is the former government mental health champion. She is a writer and campaigner and visits an average of three schools per week all over the UK. She tweets @_natashadevon. Find out more about her work here

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