Exam season can be a stressful time for anyone, but when you’re studying abroad, far away from your usual support network of family and friends, the pressure of exam period can sometimes feel overwhelming.
1. Learn the difference between stress and anxiety
A certain level of stress is completely normal, even helpful, in the lead up to exams. Putting a little pressure on yourself to stay focused and keep working can be positive and motivating.
It’s when that pressure starts to feel out of control and starts negatively affecting your academic performance, and your physical and mental wellbeing, that ‘stress’ becomes distress, or anxiety.
Whenever you feel anxiety start to take hold, it’s time to stop, forget about those exams for a moment and work on alleviating that anxiety - whether that’s through meditative breathing, getting some sun and exercise or just talking to a friend.
When you’re in a calm state of mind, create an action plan to prepare yourself for exam season - one that includes time to reset and make sure you’re looking after yourself.
2. Create a study plan
If you’re not one to normally plan out daily tasks in life, exam time is a great time to start. Create a visual, diary-style plan with fixed times for different activities.
Contrary to what some might believe, the best way to study successfully isn’t to abandon everything else in life and cram. A better approach is to organise your study periods in short but intensive bursts (your brain starts to lose its ability to retain information after 45 minutes of intense activity), with time-out built in for other activities like exercise, work and socialising.
Being able to refer to a visual plan will remind you of what you need to focus on and help you avoid study’s number one enemy - procrastination!
Try to follow your schedule closely, but be flexible if need be. If you think you need more time reviewing a particular topic, ask your boss if you can reschedule that upcoming shift at work. Just remember to reward yourself whenever you’ve worked hard and made good progress.
3. Just breathe
Preparing to ace those exams isn’t just about academic practice - there’s an element of psychological preparation too.
One simple but effective form of psychological preparation is learning breathing exercises that can reduce your stress/anxiety levels. ‘Learning’ is key here, as breathing techniques work best in stressful situations if practiced regularly beforehand.
So before each study session, in the weeks leading up to the exam, take a few weeks to practice some meditative breathing:
The goal is to relax any tension in your body and restore a sense of mental clarity by simply focusing on your breathing. If you find yourself feeling anxious in an exam and experiencing quick, shallow breaths, take a moment to stop what you’re doing. Instead, concentrate on breathing in deeply and exhaling fully and completely, releasing tension with each breath.
4. Exercise the body, not just the mind
Exercise is always important, but in times of stress, it’s even more vital. A range of studies have suggested that exercise stimulates production of certain neurochemicals, such as dopamine, norepinephrine and serotonin, which are associated with improved cognitive function, elevated mood and learning.
Exercising regularly and eating healthy also contribute to getter deeper, most restful sleep - you want to wake up feeling refreshed and ready to go on exam day (another reason late-night cramming sessions aren’t recommended).
5. Don't be afraid to ask for help
Don’t be afraid to reach out for help if there are still things you don’t understand. Your tutors and lecturers are there to help you with your questions during these times. Talk to your classmates, and if you think it’ll help, join or form study groups where you can discuss your problems and successes in-person and online.
If the stress is really getting to you, don’t suffer in silence - always let someone know. Call your family and friends back home. Just an encouraging voice from a close friend can be a real comfort.
If you feel exam pressure is affecting your mental health, reach out to a support group or guidance counsellor at your university. Or if you prefer, talk to someone anonymously through a 24/7 mental health helpline.
As a student, you may also be eligible for free access to Sonder through your Allianz as your OSHC insurer, or your through your university. If you find stress getting the better of you and you’re not sure who to turn to, remember that Sonder is here for its members 24/7, not just when you’re concerned for your safety but whenever worried about how stress is affecting your wellbeing. Our Sonder Support Centre staff are all Mental Health First Aid trained and can provide you with advice, assistance or a referral to the services best suited to your needs.