Feeling stressed about exams? Here are 6 tips to cope

It's exam time for high school students on Prince Edward Island, and that can be stressful — for the students and for everyone around them. Here are six tips to get through it.

How to keep things calm in your household during high school exams

Having a schedule of how to study and dividing up your work is one strategy to avoid a stressful exam time. (Marcelo del Pozo/Reuters)

It's exam time for high school students on Prince Edward Island, and that can be stressful — for the students and for everyone around them.

"It can be a stressful time of year just in general terms, after Christmas holidays and the winter blues settle in. But also exams do add another element of stress that can further heighten some level of anxiety," said Murray MacInnis, a counselling consultant with the Public Schools Branch.

"Some students do get pretty nervous even around the terminology of writing exams versus a test or a quiz, feeling that's there's quite a bit more weight on it."

Have a game plan and review the entire exam before you starts is another tip from school counsellor Murray MacInnis. (CBC)

'I will definitely be happy when it's over'

Certified yoga instructor Kay Pitre, who operates an online business called My Yoga Playground, knows all about exam stress. Her 16-year-old son, Nicholas Brown, is in Grade 11 at Ecole Francois Buote.

"It's been a huge topic in our household over the last month," said Pitre, who has specialized training in using yoga to cope with stress, anxiety and depression. 

Kay Pitre says exams have been a big topic of conversation in her household. She's seen here with her son, Nicholas Brown, just after he got his driver's licence. (Submitted by Kay Pitre)

"I will definitely be happy when it's over."

Pitre says yoga helps deal with the physical effects of stress, but also calming the mind.

"Yoga is all about living in the present moment," she said.

"So we're not really thinking about what has happened in the past, of what's coming in the future, we're focused on what we're doing at that particular point in time."

MacInnis, Pitre and Brown all shared different ways of coping with the stress. Here are some of their tips:

1. Take a break

Pitre suggested getting a change of scenery when studying gets overwhelming.

"Go for a walk, go for a run, go out for a snack somewhere, and then come back to the studying after that," she suggested.

One of Kay Pitre's pieces of advice: take a break and get a change of scenery. (Submitted by Kay Pitre)

If you don't have time for that, it can be as simple as standing up for a minute or two.

"If you're at a desk and you're studying all day and you're stressed out, then just get up and move around."

2. Keep it in perspective

"The exam is worth a portion of your mark and for most students, an exam is not a make or break exercise. Most students have a certain mark going into an exam and usually an exam mark will only lead to slight fluctuations in that mark," said MacInnis.

Pitre's son added that preparation can go a long way.

There are mobile apps that can help with organization and mindfulness. (Vincent Kessler/Reuters)

"Sometimes I get stressed out, but if you study, it won't be stressful," said Brown.

"You can be prepared, not cramming at the last minute. Have a schedule of how to study, to divide your work."

3. Remember to eat, sleep and breathe

"Sleep habits, eating habits and exercise are important. We know that a brain is better stimulated for learning once the body has been triggered with some exercise," said MacInnis.

"It's about finding the proper balance in how they prepare for the exam."

Brown agreed a good breakfast is important. His suggestion is pancakes — his mom's recipe of whole wheat pancakes with blueberries on top, of course.

Kay Pitre suggests heading outdoors as a way to cope with exam stress. (Submitted by Kay Pitre)

Pitre said it's important to remember to breathe.

"Something as simple as taking one deep breath in, on a count of one, and then exhaling on a count of two, so that your out breath is twice as long as your in breath," she said. "That is a very relaxing breathing technique. You could do a few minutes of that."

4. Parents need to relax too

"We don't need to rescue our children from this. Anxiety is actually normal for everybody and it is sometimes a helpful process to go through because anxiety will prompt us to study for exams and be prepared," said MacInnis, but he said it's also important to keep an eye on your student.

Kay Pitre has special training in using yoga to help with stress and anxiety. (Nancy Russell/CBC)

"There are cases where the anxiety could be at a more extreme level and some students in more rare occasions could experience a high level of anxiety and have hyperventilation or sleep disruption. At that point, we do advise that they contact their school counsellor."

5. There's an app for that

"There are mobile apps that can be used to help students organize better, use mindfulness strategies to help calm themselves. There are literally hundreds of them out there," suggested MacInnis.

Taking some deep breaths during the exam can have a calming effect, says Pitre. (CBC)

6. Have a game plan

Pitre suggested making a list of ten things to do when you're stressed out.

"Sometimes when we're stuck in a situation, we don't really know where to go," she said.

"Just have that list handy and then when you do feel like you're stressed, go to that list and pick one thing to go do," she said.

"That may be call a friend, put on some happy music. Sometimes when we're in that moment, we don't think of it, so if we have that list to go to, that would be really helpful as well."

Kay Pitre and son Nicholas Brown in calmer times. (Submitted by Kay Pitre)

MacInnis underscored the importance of having a game plan when writing an exam. Here's his suggestion for a plan of attack:

  • Look through the exam before you start to write.
  • Make sure you don't miss any questions on the back of a page.
  • Look at the value per question and plan your time accordingly.
  • Answer the questions that you know the best to be sure to get those marks.

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Nancy Russell has been a reporter with CBC since 1987, in Whitehorse, Winnipeg, Toronto and Charlottetown. When not on the job, she spends her time on the water or in the gym rowing, or walking her dog.