How to deal with exam stress, according to a psychologist

Published: November 16, 2017 / 4 Comments

How to Deal With Exam Stress

Door slamming, tantrums and sleepless nights are all too common in many South African homes with the fourth week of exams drawing to a close and the last week about to kick off.

While parents and teachers share the pain, it is teenagers who take the most strain from exam stress, and some severely so. SACAP fieldwork placement centre, The South African Depression and Anxiety Group (SADAG) reports a significant spike in pupils, especially grade 12s, calling its helpline over the last few weeks. The case of a grade 10 Philippi pupil who took his own life – a tragic consequence, according to his family, of the immense pressure of exams – further underlines the crucial need for emotional support for the country’s young people at this stressful time. And, with suicide accounting for 9.5% of teenage deaths in South Africa, there is reason for concern that the matric results period may aggravate symptoms for those who are already depressed.

Getting your house in order

While school counsellors and teachers are working overtime to cope with the emotional demands triggered by exams, parents have, perhaps, the biggest role to play when it comes helping children do their best without adding to their problems and stoking their stress. SADAG’s Cassie Chambers says young people have a variety of ways of revising, and stress in the home is often increased when parents fail to understand this: “It’s important to find out what works for them. For example, some people find it easier to revise with music or the TV on in the background and parents might think it should be turned off. Some want to study all night long while parents want lights out at 10pm. This can lead to conflict.”

Important, too, say psychologists and neuroscientists alike, is to try as far as possible to reduce anxiety in the learner’s environment and so, help reduce exam stress. We remember emotionally charged events far better than others.This is especially the case if the emotion is a positive one, research shows. While it is not always possible to have warm feelings about revision, neuroscientists claim that if you can associate a particular fact with a visual, auditory or emotional experience from the past, then you have a better chance of remembering it. In so doing, multiple pathways for retrieval of the information are created and the brain’s neuroplasticity (its ability to re-organise itself by breaking and forming new connections between its billions of cells) is improved. It follows, then, that, because anxiety uses up working memory, it leaves a much smaller capacity available for processing and encoding new information, which is clearly not conducive to revision.

Sleeping it off

Sleep, too, is vital at this time. In fact, more so than any other, say the experts. Sleep plays a critical role in memory consolidation – when the brain backs up short-term patterns of stored information and creates long-term memories. The process is believed to occur during deep sleep, when the hippocampal neurons pass the patterns of activity to another part of the brain called the neocortex, which is responsible for language and the generation of motor commands. Research in Nature Neuroscience has shed new light on how memories are de-cluttered and irrelevant information is deleted during this process. This results in that important memories (the pathways that have been strengthened through revision) become easier to access.

But, above all, say both doctors and counsellors, it is important to be there for your children emotionally as they go through exam stress during this time. “Talk to your teens,” advises Chambers. “Find out what’s stressing them out, what their most difficult subjects are … let them know that, no matter what happens, you’re always going to be there for them.”

It’s the job of a counsellor to help people through tough times. If you’re interested in pursuing a career in counselling, you can study a counselling course at SACAP. Programmes such as the Bachelor of Applied Social Science (BAppSocSci) and the Diploma in Counselling and Communication Skills will help you obtain the necessary qualifications, as well as providing invaluable communication skills that can be applied in all walks of life. For more information, enquire now.

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  1. Nolwazi Bam


    I need information on where I can get someone to coach my child on exam management. She is fine before exams but when she has to write a paper that she particularly thinks it’s difficult, she panics and thus does not perform well in her exam, but she does well with tests and class assessments.

    • SACAP


      Her teachers may be able to provide you with information on coaches in your area who can assist your child with exam stress.

  2. Mahendra Trivedi Reviews

    Stress is a normal part of life, but unmanaged stress can increase the risk of heart disease. It’s important to determine your stress triggers and either avoid them or learn to handle them in a way that reduces your stress. Common causes of intense stress are death of a loved one, relationship problems, job loss, legal problems, perfectionism, and more. Physical symptoms of stress include:

    Low energy
    Upset stomach, including diarrhea, constipation, and nausea
    Aches, pains, and tense muscles
    Chest pain and rapid heartbeat
    Frequent colds and infections
    Loss of sexual desire and/or ability
    Nervousness and shaking, ringing in the ear, cold or sweaty hands and feet
    Dry mouth and difficulty swallowing
    Clenched jaw and grinding teeth

  3. Trivedi Effect

    One simple solution would be to say ‘stop stressing!’ to yourself — which, if you say it out loud, will stop your train of thought when you’re stressing too much. Of course, it’s not always easy to stop stressing, as stress is an instinctive reaction — and some stressors will be out of our control. The best way to deal with stress is to make a conscious decision to change your reaction to it when stress occurs. So, when you begin to feel stressed about a particular problem, say ‘stop stressing!’ to yourself and try to put the problem into perspective.