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How to beat exam stress

Turn anxiety into action with these 7 tried-and-true techniques
April 14, 2021
By Sarah Buck and Tom Peacock

With exams under way, it’s likely you’re experiencing more stress and anxiety than usual. This is completely normal.

Here are seven effective ways to manage this hectic time.

1. Shake it

Exercise helps alleviate stress. The main problem, according to Richard DeMont, associate professor in the Department of Health, Kinesiology and Applied Physiology, 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 to experience the benefits. A 15-minute walk a couple of times a day is enough.

You may also want to look into the numerous online fitness classes being offered through Le Gym. Check out the Danc’Zen classes if you want to take a break, explore various types of dance and let go of any tension from the day.

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.

Juliet Dunphy, a learning specialist at the Student Success Centre, points out that sitting still for long periods lowers brain activity.

“Being at home a lot means that students are sitting for long periods at our desks and couches,” 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 that don’t include screen time: call a friend, grab a coffee to go or go up and down a flight of stairs. Kick-start that brain.

3. Think of the big picture

“Spirituality is about nurturing yourself,” says Reverend Ellie Hummel, coordinator and chaplain of the Multi-faith and Spirituality Centre.

She adds that it’s important to avoid tunnel vision at exam time. “That is what I call spirituality. Every day, we need to create moment to pause, breathe and be aware. This can be done in simple and accessible ways,” Hummel says.

“For example, when studying from home, take a moment to step outside and ask: What does the air smell like? What colour is the sky? Watch a cloud float away or a raindrop land on the ground. Pay attention to what is going on around you: notice a person walking by, a squirrel racing up a tree, a piece of paper blowing in the wind. Name three things you are grateful for, even in this exam period. And then, when you return to your books or computer, take three deep breaths and settle into the tasks ahead.”

4. Be prepared

It’s never good to get too worked up, but Dunphy 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 find out 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. This is especially important now as online exams differ in how they are administered. You will want to learn exactly what to expect when it comes to the nature of your exam. You are also encouraged to read through the online exam FAQ.

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.

“If you are struggling with unexplained exam anxiety, you can conquer it by developing better study habits and time-management skills during the term,” Dunphy 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 academic performance.”

5. Map out your study time

Forget cramming: it takes many hours to study effectively for a major exam. Schedule one or two three-hour study blocks every day for two weeks before the main event. Studying with someone else can be motivating, too.

If you have several exams in a week, clearly define the study blocks in your schedule. Cut down on socializing and, if possible, cut back on non-related work hours.

At this point, you should be reviewing what you already know — but you still have time to improve in any weaker areas.

6. Don’t go it alone

Still feeling overwhelmed? Talk to someone. Peer wellness ambassadors can offer a caring ear and point you to support services at Concordia; tutors and learning specialists can help you overcome academic hurdles; and a counsellor can assist you with personal issues.

Remember that anxiety can be tied to other health problems, so don’t hesitate to visit Counselling and Psychological Services or Health Services or check out Concordia’s virtual Zen Dens to connect with peer wellness ambassadors and wellness professionals.

If you’ve been diagnosed with a disability, including mental health conditions, the Concordia Access Centre for Students with Disabilities offers a range of support, including an accommodated exam-writing service on both campuses. Contact the centre for more information.

7. Create brain space

On exam day, take some time to collect yourself. Don’t study right up until the last moment: information overload might cause you to blank out at the worst possible moment.

Show up to the exam at least 15 minutes early with all the required materials, even if the exam is online, and test your computer to ensure all is working well.

Also, don’t forget to eat well beforehand. Stick to healthy food — nothing greasy or heavy. Eggs and fruit are ideal.

To learn about dealing with stress and other issues, visit
Concordia’s Health and Wellness website.


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