The Student Guide to Alleviating Stress During Exams

imageNiamh McGovern

Student life is often characterised by its liveliness; filled with opportunity to learn, socialise, and excite. However, as the academic term comes to a close, many of us reach the end of our year with a feeling of debilitation and exhaustion. Looming deadlines and examinations have a drastic effect on our mental wellbeing – and while it is beneficial to maintain a healthy level of focus and determination for your degree, it is vital to keep your mental health in check during the next few weeks.

How can you be sure your mental health is not at risk? We are all humans, not artificial beings, so we will forever be prone to worry and anxiety. That being said, there are some small steps you can take to increase your mental wellbeing while taking exams.

Eat well
An obvious suggestion, but one you should immediately take on board! While a 2AM vending machine snack may help you in the sort-term, it is aversive, and expensive, in the long-term. Stress can tempt us to indulge in sugary foods, like take-aways, crisps and a fizzy drinks, but it will ultimately make you feel lethargic and worn out; the very feeling we try to avoid. Try to eat foods high in carbohydrates and low in sugars, which fill and calm the body, without causing a ‘crash’ thereafter. Fruit and vegetables are the obvious options, but pastas, puddings, homemade cereal bars and nut mixes make great alternatives! Don’t be afraid of the carbohydrate, it is a wonderful thing that enables our bodies to work for more than three hours at a given period, plus they’re Jamie Oliver approved.

On this point, do not skip meals. I’m a repeat offender for skipping breakfast, much to the disappointment of my roommates. On those days when I do take the time to make breakfast, I am more productive than ever. On a basic level, meal skipping decreases mental function. As a more serious problem, it can make you susceptible to illness. So, if you plan to spend three quarters of your week in the library, pack a lunch.

Go to bed before 2AM
Another obvious tip, but maybe the most important. If you can, go to sleep early and give your body the rest it needs. According to the National Sleep Foundation, 60 per cent of adults experience a lack of sleep, causing mental inhibitions, moodiness and general fatigue. If you absolutely feel the need to stay up all night to finish that last chapter, consider the implications to the rest of your week, and do not do it the night before your deadline or exam.

Procrastinate, if it works for you
I’m a procrastinator, meaning I can do anything from cleaning my entire flat, to cooking a banquet for one, in order to avoid my degree. However, there are studies to suggest that procrastination is an effective way to break-up study. On average, phychologists have determined the brain can focus on one task completely, for up to 45 minutes, before mental focus slowly decreases. Therefore, a quick 3 minute break could improve your capacity to work quite dramatically. Try talking to someone, listening to music, checking your emails, or filling your three minutes with mindful exercises to see if it works for you.

On a logistical level, you might find it easier to approach a topic if you will only be spending 45 minutes focusing on that task, rather than 2 hours.

Avoid caffeine
As a certified coffee addict, this is difficult to advise; but the simple truth of the matter is that excessive caffeine in the body is dangerous. More than 400g of caffeine causes insomnia, irritability and stress in the body. However, the average cup of coffee contains 40-50mg of caffeine, therefore you may enjoy your coffee sensibly.

On a general level, avoid all stimulants, including cigarettes and alcohol, if you can.

Learn to ‘Break’, properly
Understand the term ‘break’ fully. Remove yourself from those textbooks, physically, in order to recharge your brain. Inhabiting a space which encourages your brain to focus on another environment has lasting benefits on productivity.

If you happen to be in the library past 9pm, Queen’s Students’ Union offer free tea and coffee in the canteen, colouring and other fun activities to take your mind off exams, as part of the Are Ye’ Well campaign at QUBSU. Mind Your Mood QUB run workshops and activities to improve mental awareness and wellbeing throughout the year.

Plan something outrageous in-between study
Trampolining has now come highly recommended as a hobby, by my friends. It’s fun, requires a lot of physical exertion, and it doesn’t take place in the McClay library. As ridiculous as this may sound, it is highly recommended by experts to have a life ‘outside of the classroom’. Particularly, physical activity produces endorphins, is physically beneficial, and improves mental activity in individuals.

Doing something different is an excellent way to relieve stress in the body; there is an abundance of activities throughout Belfast to enjoy this week, from trampolining, to laser tag. On campus, Queen’s Sport has racquet and tennis courts available to book if you have a gym membership, or there’s a variety of classes available to book online.


If you need it, get financial help
According to the research carried out by NUS Insight, in cooperation with Future Finance, over a third of students (36%) in the UK are worrying about their finances to such an extent that it is affecting their mental health.

This is a circumstantial, often unavoidable source of stress during the exam period, but there are outlets which can help those students who find themselves in difficult situations. Any student can apply for the DEL Student Support Fund, find out more information here. If you do not qualify for the Support Fund, or you would prefer to apply for Hardship assistance, you can apply for the Student Hardship Fund, via the QSIS homepage, with a simple four-five step application and evidence of income sources. If you find yourself in financial difficulty and it’s affecting your mental health, contact the Students’ Union here.

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