top of page

Mental Health Advice: How to Combat the High Pressures of the Exam Period

In light of Mental Health Awareness Week, there is no better time to be transparent about the high pressures of the exam period – and the detrimental impact that this can have on students’ mental health.

Student feeling worried about exams

GCSE and A Level students are sitting their exams across May and June, and both pupils and parents are feeling the pressure. However, in this day and age, we are being encouraged to have open conversations about mental wellbeing more than ever before. The previously ‘taboo’ topic is now at the front and centre of society. But is this enough? In today’s blog, we will be exploring how the stresses of the exam season impact students’ mental health – and practical tips to combat this.

What is Mental Health Awareness Week?

In 2023, Mental Health Awareness Week falls on the week commencing the 15th of May. Whilst many argue that mental health awareness should be a year-round feature, this week is designed to specifically hone our focus.

The Mental Health Foundation, a leading UK mental health charity, started the tradition almost three decades ago. From the get-go, their aim was to raise awareness of mental health across the UK, provide resources and support for those suffering, and to progressively break the stigma. Each year, the week focuses on a different theme. In 2023, they are shining a light on anxiety: what it is, how it affects us, and how we can cope with it.

How Can Exams Impact Young People’s Mental Health?

This year’s theme is particularly fitting, as anxiety is the main culprit which crops up during the exam period. Exam anxiety is referred to as a type of ‘performance anxiety’: students are anxious about how they will or have performed in exams, which can affect them before, during and after the exams take place. Naturally, having your entire school career build up to a short spell of exams is an anxiety-inducing affair. Not to mention the continuous emphasis on how said exams can dictate the course of your life! Now that’s a whole lot of pressure resting on a handful of written papers. What’s more, revising can be an isolating experience for many pupils. When overwhelmed with all the different subjects, topics and exam boards, it is all too easy to get into a negative mental cycle – especially when studying alone – which can involve being fixated on a self-fulfilling prophecy of failure. The exam setting itself is also a key anxiety trigger for many. Even those that took their GCSEs (or O Levels!) years ago will testify that the silent exam hall policed by prowling invigilators still haunts their memories! Moreover, the physical symptoms of anxiety are debilitating for exam performance; increased heart rate and lack of sleep, for example, disrupt the recall of revised information. Last year, the NHS pledged to fast-track mental health support for millions of pupils; there are now support teams in thousands of schools across the UK, providing children with the lifeline they need. This action was deemed an urgent necessity, due to the realities of life after the pandemic. It is important to remember that this year’s exam-takers have had their school life hugely disrupted by Covid-19, and are facing the unsettled consequences of this. The number of young people seeking support from mental health services has increased tenfold in the last two years; on one hand, it is positive that they are seeking the help they need, and have access to that support, yet this is also undoubtedly a direct result of the hardships they faced in the pandemic – during such a pivotal time of physical and emotional development. So, the question is: how can we help students combat the pressures of the exam period?

Student stressed with revision

The Dos and Don’ts of Exams: A Mental Health Edition

Do Make a Revision Schedule Anxiety often occurs when students feel out of control. Therefore, if you’re sitting your exams this year, ensure that you make a revision schedule – and stick to it. Trust us, everything seems less daunting when it’s laid out in front of you, and you can also satisfyingly tick off tasks when complete! One of the most anxiety-inducing things about revision is the sheer magnitude of different things to remember. However, if you allocate a set time to each topic, you’re a) managing your limited time, and b) breaking your revision down into manageable, less daunting chunks. If you’re a parent (without necessarily being too overbearing!), you can help your child create their revision schedule, or at the very least, check that they are adhering to it. Working independently can be an overwhelming prospect, and having some gently enforced structure instilled will be helpful for any student. Do Take Regular Breaks All study sessions must be interspersed with regular breaks. Breaks are highly necessary to prevent burnout; whoever told you that revising solidly for several hours is the way forward was telling porkies! Revision is most effective in short bursts, as this is the best way to retain information. What’s more, it is crucial that you allow your mind to decompress if you’re looking to reduce anxiety. And remember – fresh air can work wonders for your mental health! So, if you’re feeling overloaded and overwhelmed, go outside and take a walk. Even if just for ten minutes or so, the great outdoors paired with physical exercise will help uncloud your mind – it’s even been scientifically proven! Don’t Cram Our plea for students to make a revision schedule is in the hopes of avoiding cramming. We’ve all been there and done it – but the last thing we would do is advise it! Cramming has been proven to be one of the least effective ways of retaining information, as it naturally increases stress, panic and overall anxiety. So, please, avoid standing outside the exam hall, frantically running through your revision notes if you can help it! You will be much better placed sitting quietly, taking deep breaths, and thinking positively: you’ve put in the work, so everything else will fall into place. You know the syllabus, and when you see the paper, it should all come flooding back. You’ve revised as much as you possibly could, and most importantly, you’ve done your best. You will perform to the best of your ability under these anxiety-inducing circumstances – and you know what? That is enough, and you are enough.

Do Rest and Recuperate

It would be remiss of us not to emphasise the basics: eating a balanced diet, and getting enough sleep. Whilst it may be all-too-tempting to rely on a caffeine or sugar rush for pre-exam energy, this is a big don’t in our books. We’d avoid too much caffeine and sugary snacks, as this ultimately leads to an unwanted and unprecedented energy crash. On the contrary, we’d advise sticking to your 5 a day, and having a balanced diet – rich in healthy carbohydrates! And remember to keep hydrated – water is your friend (and it’s free!). Next up, let’s talk about sleep: doctors don’t recommend eight hours for nothing! Whilst it may be easier said than done (insomniacs, we hear you!), it’s of utmost importance that you try to get as much sleep as possible, particularly prior to exams. If helpful, try to get into a routine in the weeks leading up to your exams, where you go to bed earlier than normal, giving your brain a chance to switch off before you succumb to slumber! If you are a parent, you can play your part in ensuring that your child gets enough sleep. Simply emphasise the importance of their rest and recuperation – and perhaps even encourage them by tweaking your own sleeping pattern! Remember: the exam period will be over in the blink of an eye, and there’s no harm in ensuring that the rest of the house sticks to a relatively reasonable sleeping schedule, so that ‘FOMO’ doesn’t rear its ugly head! What’s more, we would advise monitoring the use of devices at night-time. Excessive screen time is the enemy of a good night’s sleep, and as a parent, you are well within your rights to gently nudge your child to shut down and switch off for the night. Don’t Panic Again, this may be easier said than done, but there are many techniques to prevent panic during exams. First, ensure you’ve bought a bottle of water with you. Slow sips of water can quell anxiety. Secondly, try to regain control of your breathing. Take deep breaths – with a particular focus on the ‘in’ breaths – and make yourself comfortable. Any tension that you feel is completely natural. If you didn’t feel stressed before an exam, that would be abnormal! It’s merely a case of riding the wave; acknowledging your anxiety, but not letting it command and control you. The first step is reading the instructions at the front of the paper carefully. Once the exam has begun, if you feel any kind of panic start to creep in, put your pen down, and take a moment to breathe. If there’s a particular question that’s stressing you out, come back to it later – you’ve got the whole paper to tackle! Some students find themselves doing the paper backwards, and that’s fine, too! Whatever your coping mechanism may be, utilize it – and remember, you’ve got this! Do Seek Support As a parent, there are a plethora of ways that you can support your child. Have a read of our Revision vs. Relaxation blog; there’s a section about revising collaboratively, which encourages students and parents to make revision a family affair. As previously mentioned, the exam period can feel incredibly isolating for many – and this is a key way of ensuring that your child doesn’t feel alone. If you are a student who is struggling with the pressures of the exam period, please remember: a problem shared is a problem halved. Whether you’re seeking the help of a one-to-one tutor, the support of your friends and family, or even the advice of a mental health professional, there are a whole team of people who are here for you. If you are struggling, speak up. And if it seems like the end of the world right now, trust us – there’s always a brighter tomorrow.

Group of friends revising together to reduce anxiety

Whilst exams are important, you are so much more important. Put your mental health first. For more information on who to contact if you need urgent support, visit the Mind website today.


bottom of page