Exam Journey to Success: Taking Care of Your Wellbeing Through Testing Times.

Written by Victoria Butcher and Jennine Ballew
BFIS High School and Middle School Counseling Team

Carol Dweck, Professor of Psychology at Stanford University,  2006 book entitled Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, explores how a person’s underlying beliefs about their intelligence and ability to learn can impact their academic performance. Dweck’s Motivational Theory argues that intelligence and talents are not fixed traits, but can be grown with patience and perseverance. With this in mind, as students prepare to apply their knowledge and understanding under test conditions,  it is important that they are able to maintain a balanced approach between the rigors of exam preparation and their emotional well-being.

The IB Learner Profile highlights 10 fundamental attributes of a learner with balance being one of them, 

“We understand the importance of balancing different aspects of our lives—intellectual, physical, and emotional—to achieve well-being for ourselves and others.”   International Baccalaureate Organization 2013

As students begin their exam preparations it would be wise to look out for the mental health warning signs that could lead to emotional  ‘imbalance’, as they prepare to demonstrate their learning under arguably stressful exam conditions.

Middle School students

So how do your thoughts, feelings and behaviors affect your well-being when feeling stressed about exams?

Exam stress, often called test anxiety, is a common experience that many students face. It is the feeling of being overwhelmed, anxious, or worried about upcoming assessments or exams. Exam stress can have a significant impact on your well-being and academic performance if left unchecked. Therefore,  it is important to understand some of the causes of exam stress and learn effective strategies to manage it. 

  • Feeling unprepared if you have left your revision too late or not having a well-thought-out study plan can lead to a sense of inadequacy and anxiety. 

  • Fear of the unknown can lead to overthinking about the exam paper and what may or may not be tested. 

  • Pressure from parents teachers and even oneself to achieve certain grades can contribute to increasing stress levels.

  • Comparing ourselves to others and worrying about the future, such as getting into university or finding a job, can also contribute to exam stress. 

  • Life changes, difficulties at home or in relationships, and caring responsibilities can further exacerbate stress levels.

The emotional and physical impact of exams stress

Exam stress can manifest in various ways, both emotionally and physically. Some of the ways emotions can include feelings of anxiousness, being overwhelmed, and being worried, leading to upset and tears. Physically, you may experience headaches, dizziness, stomach pain, difficulty concentrating, forgetfulness, and other bodily symptoms brought on by stress.

student stressed by exams

In addition, exam stress can significantly impact one’s cognition. Fear of failure, fear of disappointing oneself or others, negative self-talk, and doubting oneself are some of the common thoughts that could run through a stressed mind. Along with stress-induced behaviors that could result in avoiding revision, negatively impacting motivation, overworking without taking breaks, and a lack of engagement in activities that would normally be enjoyable.  

What are some strategies to reduce exam stress?

By implementing some of the following strategies,  along with your own tried and tested methods, you will hopefully effectively manage exam stress to improve your well-being overall. 

  • Practice self-care – Start with the basics by ensuring you are getting enough sleep, eating a balanced diet, exercising regularly, and engaging in activities that help you to relax and unwind. Practice relaxation activities such as deep breathing, for example, Box breathing exercises or mental grounding techniques that have been proven to calm both mind and body during stressful moments. 

  • Positive self-talk –  Challenge those negative thoughts by replacing them with positive and encouraging ones. Remember Dweck’s philosophy  The Power of Yet,   and seek out opportunities to develop your resilience as you face new challenges. Make it your daily mantra to remind yourself of your abilities and strengths. Remember that you are on a learning journey and that exams are just one aspect of this journey. 

  • Your network of support  – As the phrase goes, ‘there is safety in numbers’ so remember to reach out to your school counselors, teachers, friends, or family members for guidance and support. Share your concerns and seek advice to help alleviate some of the stress you are experiencing. 

  • Executive functioning skills – Begin your exam preparation well in advance to avoid feeling rushed or overwhelmed. Time management is important as you create a study schedule to help break down your revision into manageable chunks. Keep your study materials, notes, and important information well-organized and if possible designate an area either at home or school that will become your ‘study space’ to help reduce distractions.

Remember, it is normal to feel some level of stress in the lead-up to exams, but with the right mindset and good support system in place you can navigate this potentially challenging period – successfully! 

More about this Topic

Carol Dweck: Carol Dweck – Growth Mindset – The Power of Yet – Ted Talk
Choosing Therapy: https://www.choosingtherapy.com/grounding-techniques/
Medical Health News Today: https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/321805
Morrisby: https://www.morrisby.com/blog/exam-revision-techniques-7-top-tips
Psychology Today: https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/basics/growth-mindset
Young Minds: https://www.youngminds.org.uk/young-person/coping-with-life/exam-stress/

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