Stress causes a reaction in our minds and bodies to situations and events that put pressure on us. The changes stress causes in the body are designed to keep us safe from danger – this is called the ‘flight or fight response’. If we experience stress for long periods of time our bodies stay in a state of high alert and this can affect our physical and mental health.
Our experiences of stress can be divided into four categories; emotions, thoughts, physical sensations and behaviour.
- Anxious, nervous or scared
- Irritable or aggressive
- Low or down
- Negative thoughts about ourselves
- Racing thoughts
- Difficulty making decisions
- Tense muscles
- Heart racing
- Shallow breathing
- Feeling sick, butterflies in the stomach
- Feeling tired
- Sleep problems
- Loss of appetite
- Avoiding things or people
- Using drink or drugs
- Snapping at people
- Doing things that make us feel good can help us to be calmer or distract us from something that’s worrying us. You will know what works for you, but this could include:
- Having a bath
- Going for a walk
- Calling a friend
- Listening to music
- Watching a film
- Being creative
- Relaxation – learning to relax can help us to feel calmer when things are getting too much. Relaxation starts with our breathing; try this simple breathing exercise:
- Breathe in through your nose for a count of 3
- Breathe out through your mouth for a count of 5
- Every time you breathe out, imagine you are getting rid of all the tension in your body and worries in your mind
- Keep doing this for a few minutes
- Mindfulness – this is about being more aware of things in the present moment and can help us to find some peace of mind. Focussing on our breathing is a good way of becoming more mindful. Try this simple meditation exercise:
- Sit with your back straight (but not tense) and your eyes closed
- Notice the feeling of your breath coming in and going out; focus on your belly rising and falling or the cold air on your nostrils
- Whenever you think about something else, bring your attention back to the breath. Try not to criticise yourself – it’s completely normal to get distracted, this is how our minds work. The practice is simply to notice that our mind has wandered and to bring our focus back to the breath
You will find lots of guided meditation videos online, and there are apps, for example Headspace.
- Reaching out – it’s important that we have people in our lives who we can turn to when we’re finding things difficult. Have a think about who these people might be – they could be family members, friends, teachers, neighbours, or even a loved pet! Don’t worry if you can’t think of many people – the number is less important than the quality of the connections.
In the lead up to exams, young people and their families may be feeling nervous about the upcoming events. Feelings of nervousness may be stronger this year as students have had a very disrupted pathway to them over the last two years. Some young people may not have sat a formal exam at all, and their stress levels may be very high. Here are some tips for young people, parents and teachers to help reduce the problems that might come up. Stress can be good as it shows you care about achieving the best you can, but too much stress can cause you to feel low and demotivated.
Think about it in perspective
- exams are not the only thing that defines success and if you don’t do as well you wanted to, there are a number of other options available
- attitude, transferable skills and how you work with and get on with others are also things that employers consider when you seek employment
- exams don’t define you as a person, your other skills and abilities will shine through in other settings
- once you have done the exam, try not to think about it, you can’t change it. Write a list of things you enjoy doing so that if these thoughts creep in, you can use your list of things to distract your attention away from that topic
Prepare your revision and feel more organised
- make a list of the exams that you have, note the dates and make a timetable – this will help you to see the end date and prepare for all the exams in time
- spend some time breaking your revision into chunks will mean you don’t panic each day wondering what to focus on
- put time in to unwind and do something other than revise, listen to music, watch an episode of a favourite show or go for a walk
- don’t panic if you go off plan, you can get back on it tomorrow
Learning habits that are good for your mental and physical health
- take breaks at least every 45 minutes. Leave the area you are studying in and go for a walk or make a cup of tea. Try to spend 15 minutes away from your study area
- drink plenty of water, keeping your hydration levels up helps with concentration
- eat a regular intervals, keeping your blood sugar constant will reduce the highs and lows of energy and keep you feeling more consistent
- aim for 8 hours sleep a night
Some bad habits to avoid
- ignoring them – you won’t feel prepared on the day and will feel more stressed
- giving yourself a hard time – try not to talk negatively to yourself, encourage yourself but don’t go over the top – it will only demotivate you
- setting unrealistic targets – set your schedule and stick to it to avoid feeling like you wont be able to do it all. Make sure you do something you enjoy at regular intervals to keep your energy levels up
- reaching for caffeine – keeping a balanced diet, regular breaks and good sleep will help you stay focussed and is better than trying to complete the tasks through a caffeine infused haze
Find your support network
- don’t compare your revision journey to others -keep your own focus and at your pace
- talk to your parents/carers about what they believe you can achieve and then ask them to support you and not put un-necessary pressure on you
- chat to your teacher, librarians, school pastoral team or a good friend about any worries and see what strategies they have used successfully and see if they would suit you
Schools employ a variety of people to look after your wellbeing. Some of the titles of these staff may vary in your school but you will be able to find out about them from a teacher. Most schools have a nurse who will either have a drop-in clinic or you can make an appointment to see them.
GP – you can make an appointment to visit your doctor or a nurse at the surgery to talk about any worries or concerns you have. Call your GP surgery to speak to the receptionist or go there in person. The receptionist will probably ask you who the appointment is for and why; this is to make sure that you see the right person at the right time. You don’t have to tell them why – you can just say it’s for something personal if you like.
If you think you’ll might have difficulty discussing your mental health with your GP, you can find advice about how to prepare How to Talk to Your GP About Mental Health
Off the Record – free mental health support for 11-18 year olds. www.otrbristol.org.uk, 0808 808 9120, text 07896880011.
South Gloucestershire Talking Therapies – free support for people aged 16 and over. https://iapt-sglos.awp.nhs.uk/, 0117 378 4270.
ChildLine – free helpline for children and young people to talk about any problem 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. 0800 1111 www.childline.org.uk.
The Mix: telephone and email support for under 25’s. Freephone 0808 808 4994 (1pm-11pm) Text 80849 www.themix.org.uk.
Samaritans – if something is troubling you call 116 123 or email email@example.com.
Get self-help – free online cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) resources, www.getselfhelp.co.uk.
Reading Well; Shelf Help – a list of recommended books to help young people deal with a range of issues, available in all libraries