Exams can be stressful, but so can the time immediately before exams, when we start to feel the pressure of performing build up. If we can set some good habits in motion, it will help keep stress from becoming overwhelming, and while good self-care won’t cure a mental illness, it can help us be in the best possible position to deal with any mental health struggles we may have during exam time.

In the run up to exams, most campuses will have events, resources and extra sources of help specific to exams. Find out about them ahead of time (there will usually be emails and/or social media posts about these) and make use of them, they will often help to destress you or give you guidance on how to do well in exams

Minding your mental health

Between all the material to be memorised and all the stressful thoughts that can overwhelm us around exams, our minds can become very full. Many people find meditation to be helpful, but in times of anxiety it can sometimes not help as much. Journalling can be helpful either alongside meditation or instead of it. Jotting down your thoughts externalises them from your mind, and as a result can reduce the power they have over your feelings. Seeing them written down in front of you can help you come up with solutions to problems also. Don’t worry about how your writing reads when you journal – if it helps, that’s all that matters; it doesn’t even need to make sense!

Acknowledge & feel your feelings – name them, notice where you feel them & what the sensation is, but don’t spend too much time thinking about it, just experience it. Think about what’s at the centre of the feeling in terms of cause, but don’t judge the cause, tell yourself (out loud if necessary), that it’s ok that you’re feeling it. To help yourself process it, instead of thinking or saying phrases such as ‘I think’ or ‘I feel’, say ‘I am having the thought that’, or ‘I am having the feeling that’ – you are not your thoughts or feelings. Once you have done that, move your body and reconnect with your surroundings using your senses.

Taking breaks

Taking breaks is helpful, because it allows us to refresh ourselves. Our brains continue to percolate on what we have recently studied during a break. As a result, we can often come up with solutions, understand material better, and come back to our work with better focus. When taking a break, try to move away from your study space, and where possible, take time away from technology. Continued computer and phone screen use can strain our eyes, so if you’re using technology to study, giving your eyes a break during your breaktime is a good idea. If you can, move your body during your breaks. Whether it is going to the gym, going for a run or walk, have a dance session in your room, or even stretching, moving can help avoid aches and pains that can be brought on by sitting still for long periods of time, it can help get our blood moving through our body, and it can help dispel any stress that might be building up and ease tension in our muscles. Getting outside for movement is even better, especially if it’s bright out, as this will help maintain our sleep-wake cycle as well as getting fresh air into our lungs.

Don't be alone

It can be tempting to shut yourself away and do nothing but study until the exams are over, but isolation is something to avoid if possible. When we are alone, we can start to believe the things are mind tells us – some of which is often untrue. Sometimes are minds can lie to us, and when we are with other people, they can help us realise what is true and what is not. For example, the thought that exams are tough is true, but the thought that you are not capable of getting through them is not. Talking to friends, family, and mental health professionals or staff on campus about exam worries, and about non-exam related things is good for our mental health. Telling the people around you that you are studying for exams can be helpful in that they can help reduce stress by staying quiet or not interrupting you, and it can help keep you accountable. Make plans with people, and with yourself, that give you something to look forward to – both at the end of the exams and during the exam period such as at weekends. Don’t frame it that you can only do enjoyable things if you do well in exams, really you won’t know that for a while after the exam period, and you deserve to have joy in your life regardless of how you perform in a set of exams.

Ask for help with topics you are finding it difficult to understand. Ask for help with your mental health. Your lecturers will usually still be working even if classes have finished for the term, but they will have other things they are working on, so reaching out as early as possible will help you get the help you need. On-campus counselling is usually open throughout the year, and often will have extra counsellors working during exams. Demand is higher at this time of year, so you may have to wait a period of time before getting an appointment. This is why it’s important to reach out before things get to crisis level if possible. Don’t avoid the counselling service because you assume it’s too busy, or that someone else needs the appointment more than you. If you do need to wait for an appointment, you can use any of the services listed on this page while you are waiting.

Stress-busting actions

When our space is cluttered, so is our mind. Spending some time clearing at least the space where you will be studying will help you to focus better. Just be mindful of not spending so much time tidying that there is no time left for studying.

Don’t give up your hobbies/ leisure activities. These will help give your brain something else to think about, and similarly to just taking a break will help give your mind rest while also allowing it to work on things in the background.

We talk about the importance of good sleep hygiene in this post, but it’s worth repeating to take time between study and sleep to switch your brain off from study mode and unwind.

If you’ve read this, and you’re still struggling to study, reach our for help to your lecturers, tutor, librarian, SU, family and friends, campus counsellor or GP for help. You don’t ever need to struggle on your own.

No matter how you feel an individual exam our the overall exam period has gone for you, remember that is not a reflection of who you are as a person. You are important and of value, and no exam or assessment is worth compromising your wellbeing. If you are struggling with your mental health in a way that is impacting your life, please reach out for help. Sources of support are available here.