Exam stress is natural. With calmness techniques, a look at what you eat, and some small but useful ways to look at the big picture and stay on track, you can ease exam nerves into something you can manage.
A bit of exam stress is natural. Everyone gets a touch of exam anxiety when the adrenaline kicks before and on the big day. After all, it’s time to find out just how well your revision matches up to the questions on the paper. Sometimes, though, exam nerves can get ahead of us. Racing thoughts, memory blanks, even dreaded panic attacks… they can and sometimes do happen.
The exam stress tips below might all be things you’ve heard before, and calming your nerves before an exam is easier said than done. However, there are ways to make stomach butterflies manageable. A positive attitude and a bit of self-care can go a long way to help your brain and body work together as a team when exam time comes around.
Food, drink and nutrition before exams
We’re not monsters. If you want a burger or sweets, we’re not here to tell you to cut things out of your diet. Comfort food is, well… comforting. Unless your own body says otherwise, there are still certain things you can do to help feed your brain and body:
Your body (and brain) are mostly made of water. Stay hydrated as you revise to help retain information more effectively. Stay hydrated the morning before an exam, too. If you’ve ever had driving lessons, your instructor may well have insisted on you bringing a sippy cup to lessons and staying hydrated, as instructors know that a hydrated student is less likely to panic. Water genuinely helps you find your groove! It’s generally recommended to drink around 1.5 litres of water a day.
A nice cup of tea
Some non-caffeinated teas can help you reduce high stress levels related to exam anxiety. It’s partly down to the ingredients, and the slow and patient process of sipping at the tea can also reduce nerves as you sip regularly and feel the tasty warmth spread through your body.
Some examples of non-caffeinated teas include:
- Peppermint tea
- Chamomile tea
- Lemon balm tea
What are the best foods to eat before an exam?
This is kind of a trick question, because there’s no reason to eat something you don’t like or isn’t right for your personally just because you read it somewhere. However, there are some foods that are known to keep your brain working well and help with memory and focus. You don’t have to ask someone to go shopping for a whole bunch of fancy food you’ve never heard of before or don’t like.
What kind of helpful food might you find in your kitchen, especially before an exam? Here are some suggestions:
- Eggs (cooked however you like)
- Peanut butter (straight out of the jar with a spoon? We won’t judge you)
- Fruit (try freezing a peeled and chopped banana in the freezer – it’s like little slices of banana ice cream. Also, cherries contain melatonin which helps regulate sleep. So if exam nerves are affecting your sleep, try eating a few fresh or dried cherries an hour before bed).
- Nuts (not if you have a nut allergy though…)
- Dark leafy greens (you know the drill. If it’s dark and green, it’s probably good for you. In fact, dark greens like spinach and broccoli contain vitamin K which helps build pathways in the brain and a fair bit of vitamins B6 and B12 which improve alertness).
What you eat genuinely does matter when it comes to preparing for exams. Driving instructors work with nervous students every day. They will often tell you to make sure you’ve had a bite to eat before you get in the car for your driving test or even a driving lesson, because they know from experience how their students can become more nervous and less able to concentrate if they haven’t had something to eat.
Pre-exam calmness techniques
Everyone is a bit different. Which of these calmness techniques work for you? Give them a try…
Look out of the window
You know, looking at a bit of nature and the outside world can help you get out of your box and help you calm down. It can literally help you get a different perspective on things if you just allow yourself to look out of the window for a few moments. Instead of racing thoughts, just think about any nature you can see out there – the sky or trees, for example. Then get back to what you were doing.
Breathing techniques for exam stress
Breathing on purpose and paying attention to your breathing can actually help you calm down a lot. It’s quick to do, it’s easy to give it a go, and it doesn’t cost anything. Can you think of a single reason to not give it a go?
This breathing exercise from Birmingham City University to help students doing exams is actually really good. There are a million other breathing relaxation tutorials out there, and they are just a search away.
The nice thing about trying out a breathing technique when you next feel the exam nerves building up is that, once you’ve tried it, you can use it during the exam itself if you need to. A brief moment of breathing relaxation can do wonders when you’re wondering if you’ve read through all the questions in the paper properly. Before you check through your paper to see if you’ve answered everything you can, or have missed any pages out, try giving yourself a moment to breathe. It takes moments and will really help with your focus.
DIY hand massage
When you’re studying for exams, your hands do a lot of work. They’re always being active with keyboards and books and pens. Massaging your hands helps you get any nervous energy out of your brain as you focus on your body instead.
We can’t all afford to go to celebrity spas when we feel like it, but you can do a DIY hand and/or foot massage at home whenever you feel exam stress building. Search online for “easy DIY hand massage videos” and you’ll find all kinds of tutorials that usually only last a couple of minutes. They’re enough to show you how you can give your own hands a soothing rub when you feel like you need to. Once you know how, you can also give yourself a DIY hand massage during exams if your hand cramps up.
Get a good night’s sleep before the exam
If you tend to use your mobile phone before bed, that’s fine, but on the night before the exam try not to tell yourself you’ll be on it five minutes then look up at 2 AM and wonder where the time went.
Accept that if you’re nervous, you’re nervous. Those butterflies are there for a reason, and on the day that extra jolt of adrenaline could actually help you perform well. You can help ease your mood, but if you feel a bit anxious, that’s totally normal.
Things like a warm bath (with Epsom salts from the supermarket for extra relaxation) can help you wind down from the day, ready for a night’s rest.
One of the most useful ways to give yourself sweet dreams is to organise the day before the exam. Got what you need to take all ready and packed? Picked out your clothes in advance so you don’t have to faff in the morning? Know where you need to go, how to get to the exam hall and when to be there? That’s half the battle won. You’ve done everything you could do, so rest easy.
REMEMBER: Exam nerves don’t last forever. There’s a good chance that once you’re halfway through the exam all that exam stress will drain away, because the unknown is often scarier than the real thing. Once you’re in there, you’ll be fine. You’ll do what you can. In a weird way, you might even enjoy it.
All that remains to say is… good luck.