With the exam season already in full swing in many regions and swiftly approaching in others, the stresses of national exams (including IB, GCSEs, and A-Levels), as well as university deadlines, are being felt by students worldwide.
Reflecting on Mental Health Awareness Week (15th–21st May), Quintessentially Education asked Laurentia Campbell, neuroscientist, nutritionist and anxiety expert, for her top tips on how to stay calm on exam day and how to reach optimal productivity during this period.
1. Sleep is more important than you think
'If you want to be able to work at your best this exam season, it is essential to prioritise sleep. Many of us severely underestimate the necessity of sleep for mental health, emotional well-being, and memory. Sleep is needed to store memories in our hippocampus (the part of our brain that has a significant role in learning), so we cannot learn properly with inadequate sleep. To optimise your sleep, try to have a quiet room and limit brain stimulation. If you miss sleep, think of it as sleep debt, and repay that debt with short naps the next day.'
2. Remember to breathe
'When we breathe deeply, we shift our brain from the sympathetic nervous system (flight-fight-freeze stress mode, where we are pumped with adrenaline) to our parasympathetic nervous system (rest and digest mode). Short-term bursts of sympathetic nervous system stress (such as before an exam) are good for increasing focus and concentration, but they can sometimes make you feel panicky and more anxious. If you feel panicky before or during your exam, breathe in deeply for eight seconds, then out for eight seconds, or breathe into your chest and out of your nose until you feel calmer.'
3. Take breaks and go outdoors
'Research shows that taking short 15-minute breaks every hour helps to enhance memory storage, compared to a long block of study. Also, time outside is essential for mindfulness, memory, and mental health. Evidence shows that time outdoors can help reduce anxiety and the production of cortisol (the hormone that produces stress). Exercise also releases endorphins (the hormone that relieves pain, reduces stress and improves your sense of well-being), helping you feel more relaxed and less stressed. So, make sure you factor in some time to take a break while you revise.'
4. Eat for your mind
'To increase your ability to learn and reduce anxiety, try not to eat too many refined, high-sugar and processed foods, as these provide quick short-lasting energy, which causes energy highs and deep lows. These types of food can lead to decreased concentration and low moods. Complex carbohydrates, such as fibre, whole grains, and starchy vegetables, provide long-lasting energy sources – keeping you going for longer and helping you on days when you have multiple exams.'
5. Do something you enjoy each day
'Mindfully engaging in a pleasurable activity of your choice helps your brain process the day's information and increases memory and cognitive capacity. By doing an activity you enjoy, you shift your brain from the amygdala brain (the part that processes fearful and threatening stimuli) to the pre-frontal cortex brain (the part that helps you think clearly and logically). Being in this mindset can help you find solutions to complex questions and function at your optimal brain ability.'
Overall, it is essential to remember that anyone facing exams can only try their best on the day with the information they have available to them. We hope these techniques will benefit students on exam day and into the exam season – helping them stay calm and increasing their chances of reaching their truest potential.
If you would like advice on how best to support your child this exam season, our team of expert consults, exam preparation tutors, and mental health and mindfulness specialists are on hand to offer impartial advice and guidance. Contact Quintessentially Education today at [email protected] or phone +44 (0)20 3073 6839, and a member of our team will respond to your query.