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How to beat exam stress

Turn anxiety into action with these 6 tried and true techniques
April 13, 2016
By Sarah Buck and Tom Peacock


If you’re at the Webster Library first thing in the morning, you may spot José Maria Restrepo meditating.

“At the beginning I felt, not ridiculous, but kind of awkward,” he says. “Now I don’t mind, I just sit there. But I do think people probably say, ‘What is that guy doing?’”

With exams starting soon, it’s likely you’re experiencing more stress than usual. Meditating is the key to managing crunch time for Restrepo, but there are plenty of other effective ways to lower end-of-term anxiety levels.

1. Shake it

Exercise helps alleviate stress. The main problem, according to Richard DeMont, an associate professor in the Department of Exercise Science, is that people who are busy studying don’t make the time to do it.

But DeMont, who’s also an athletic therapist, says you don’t have to be a varsity athlete, or even a regular Le Gym-goer, to experience the benefits. A 15-minute walk a couple of times a day is enough.

“Do a loop around the campus,” he says. A quick walk can increase blood flow, relieve excitable energy, and help you focus.

2. Take a break

You may feel like you need to study for as many hours as humanly possible, but at a certain point this all-in approach becomes counterproductive.

Elaine Ransom-Hodges, a learning specialist at the Student Success Centre, points out that sitting still for long periods lowers brain activity. “You see people sleeping in the library all the time,” she says. “They’ve been sitting for too long without getting up and moving … What the body really wants to do is work that stress out.”

Schedule in short breaks: chat with friends, grab a coffee, or go up and down a flight of stairs. Kick-start that brain.

3. Think of the big picture

“Spirituality is about nurturing yourself by getting in touch with yourself and what is beyond yourself,” says Ellie Hummel, coordinator and chaplain of Multi-faith Chaplaincy, adding that it’s important to avoid tunnel vision at exam time.

"Every day, we are surrounded by opportunities to do just that. Close your eyes and take three big breaths before you open your exam book. When you walk from the EV Building to the Hall Building, look up at the blue sky and the clouds, or search for the first buds on a tree. Find something that makes you smile: a cool hat, an ad on a bus, another smiling person. Listen to the birds — they are here, all around you."

4. Be prepared

It’s never good to get too worked up, but Ransom-Hodges says a little anxiety can actually serve as a valuable warning sign that it’s time to make a study plan and set some realistic goals.

The best way to avoid exam stress is to know what’s expected of you. Do you know what’s going to be covered? Have you caught up on the lectures you missed? Are your notes in order?

If you have any questions or concerns, talk to your professor. Focus on your trouble spots. And once you’re ready to start studying, make a schedule that takes into account the different demands of each subject.

Check out "The 7 secrets to acing an exam.”

5. Find a nook

You’ve got all your material together and you’ve freed up your schedule. Now it’s time to find somewhere you can focus on learning what you need to succeed.

Maybe it’s your favourite coffee shop, or maybe it’s the quietest corner of the library — whatever works. If you don’t already have a spot in mind, take a look at these secret study spaces.

Security at Concordia recommends you keep your vaulables in sight at all times in the libraries and elsewhere on campus. Find out how to protect yourself against theft: “Laptop loss is the last thing you need right now.” 

6. Don’t go it alone

Still feeling overwhelmed? Talk to someone. Concordia's tutors and learning specialists can help you overcome academic hurdles; a counsellor can assist you with personal issues.

Anxiety can be tied to more serious health problems, so don’t hesitate to visit Health Services, which also offers a comprehensive guide to managing stress. Ransom-Hodges differentiates between general stress and anxiety.

“If you are struggling with unexplained exam anxiety, you can conquer it by developing better study habits and time management skills during the term,” she says. “Learning specialists are there to work with students proactively, one on one, to take a look at how they can improve their study skills, time management, and therefore, their academic performance.”

If you’ve been diagnosed with a learning disability or mental health condition, the Concordia Access Centre for Students with Disabilities offers a range of support, including a newly renovated exam-writing room on the Loyola Campus. For more information, contact the centre.

Keen to find a quiet nook where you can hit the books? Check out Concordia's secret study spaces.

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