With a return to in-person exams, and an extended examination period, we ask the experts how to manage anxiety - of teens and their parents - as we mark Mental Health Awareness week.
The coronavirus pandemic has meant it’s been two years since Year 11s and Year 13s across England and Wales geared themselves up for in-person exams.
This year, though, except for some reduction in the curriculum to take into account the disruption these students have faced, the exam period will feel very much as it did in 2019.
In fact, many fear that the level of stress will be even higher because of the consequences of the pandemic. With papers spaced out over the summer more than usual due to Covid considerations, the exam period will last for longer, too.
Clinical hypnotherapist and wellbeing practitioner Laura Yates says teens this year are feeling particularly worried.
“Exam stress is nothing new, but when you factor in the disruption to learning over the pandemic along with other factors, like missed milestones spent in isolation, school trips cancelled, and all those other parts of ‘normality’ that they’ve been missing in their formative years, it’s little wonder that their stress bucket is filling fast and resilience is running low.”
Keeping the whole family calm and relaxed through an exam summer is a tough challenge, but experts reckon the following simple tips could help.
Cultivate the right state
Marilyn Devonish, coach and hypnotherapist, says that performing well in exams is easier if you can get back into the more relaxed state that you were in while revising.
She says that by practising breathing and other tricks, you can get yourself into a state of “relaxed alertness”.
“You want to be relaxed and have your brain firing on all cylinders,” she says.
“A simple starting point is a couple of deep breaths and relaxing the breathing. It doesn’t sound like much, but when people are stressed, they take shallow breaths, which means you have less oxygen flow, which can affect your clarity of mind.”
Practising that state in advance, either on their own or with their family, can help a child to achieve this when they get into an exam.
“Practising being in that state a few times starts to hard-wire it into the neurology,” she says. “It means that when you approach your studies and arrive at the exam, your mind and body and brain know exactly what you want them to do, and everything works with and for you, rather than against you.”
Sleeping can be difficult when you’re stressed, but research shows that consistent, high-quality sleep in the run-up to an exam can improve performance. In fact, your performance in tests can vary by around 25% depending on how much sleep you get.
Close your laptop and move it out of sight
(Faye Lord, Armstrong & Oxford)
Fortunately, though, one poor night’s sleep before a test won’t blow your scores, since the effect of good sleep is cumulative.
Faye Lord, from academic services provider Armstrong & Oxford, says that establishing a soothing nighttime routine will help to get you through the summer.
“Close your laptop and move it out of sight. Create a relaxing music playlist to transfer your mind from exam time into leisure time. And make your sleep space as cosy and comfortable as possible, with fresh bedding and darkness,” she says.
Celebrate the small achievements
It’s easy for teens (and adults!) to feel down about the progress they’re making or obsess about the one question they answered badly. Jo Howarth, who runs mental health support business The Happiness Club, says that a five-minute daily celebration can help banish fear of failure.
“No matter if it is five minutes of revision or five hours. No matter if it is one question in the exam or all of them. Take a few minutes at the end of each day to give yourself a pat on the back for whatever you managed to do,” she says.
Sort meal plans before exams start
Eating well leads to better concentration, but mealtimes can easily become a flashpoint between teens and their parents in high-stress situations.
Nicole Bateman, a former secondary school teacher who now provides resources and workshops to tackle exam stress through her business, A Box Full of Joy, suggests planning meals in advance together to minimise issues.
“Having some meal plans sorted ahead of the exam-filled weeks will be useful, and setting those healthy boundaries of work and rest by planning a schedule together can be helpful,” she says.
Find your balance
Family yoga may be the last thing on your mind when everyone is stressed about exams, but former secondary teacher turned yoga expert Cat Edmondson says that teaching your teens to hold a tree pose could help everyone to calm down and focus.
“Bring one foot to rest on the calf of your other leg as you bring your hands together in front of the chest. Keep looking straight ahead, eyes remaining still and see if you can stay balanced for a number of breaths and then do the other leg.
“This posture has a calming and focusing effect on the mind.”
The Romans, of course, had a phrase for all this: mens sana in corpore sano – a healthy mind in a healthy body. Look after both and you and your family will thrive – not just survive – throughout this exam season.