Mental Health Matters: The importance of caring for your mental health during exams

When exam season starts, it’s common to focus on one thing and one thing only – STUDYING. Many try to cram as much into their brains as possible, with routines flying out the window, to give themselves the best shot at getting the grades they want. However, is this enough to ensure success? While revising is vital in exam preparation, if students aren’t taking care of their mental health, all their hard work may not pay off the way they hoped.

As it’s World Mental Health Awareness Month we’re wanting to highlight that taking care of mental health is fundamental to academic achievement. Why? Because mental health affects the way you think, feel and behave.

Preparing for exams involves a lot more than just revising – it requires focus, good attention, concentration, memory, decision making and the ability to manage emotionally under stress, so as not to become overwhelmed. So even if you’ve studied hard and know everything, if your mental health has not been taken care of, you might find that suddenly you aren’t able to think straight, because you’re feeling very anxious. Or you may struggle to remember certain things in the moment and have difficulties making decisions. The minute this starts to happen, the more anxious you may become, which then impacts your ability to function, creating a very unhelpful loop.

Taking care of your mental health helps you manage your thoughts, feelings and behaviour so that YOU can be in control when the time comes to get your knowledge out of your brain and onto your exam paper.

How? Here are a number of simple strategies to managing mental health effectively.

MANAGING THOUGHTS

  1. Notice WHAT you’re thinking – it’s common to focus attention on thoughts that aren’t necessarily true or helpful (e.g. “I’m going to fail.”). Once you notice these thoughts, you have the opportunity to shift your focus to the PRESENT MOMENT, which is more helpful. How? By practicing mindfulness. There are lots of resources online to learn more about mindfulness, as well as mindfulness apps (Headspace, Insight Timer, Calm, Smiling mind).
  2. Set REALISTIC expectations – Your ability to focus is limited, so it’s important to be realistic in what you expect to achieve when studying. Breaking your studies up into manageable sections you can get through is far more motivating than expecting yourself to get through an endless amount of work.
  3. Minimise distractions – Study in a space with minimal distractions. Phones and social media are EXTREMELY distracting – so don’t fool yourself into thinking you can concentrate and be on your phone. Moment app helps to set boundaries around screen time.

MANAGING FEELINGS

  1. It’s okay to not be okay – It’s normal to be stressed and anxious during exams. If you judge yourself for not feeling okay, you end up adding MORE difficult feelings into the mix, which isn’t helpful. By acknowledging if you’re not okay, you have the opportunity to start managing these difficult feelings effectively. How?
    1. Let your feelings out – directly (talking to someone, journaling) and indirectly (exercising, dancing, singing, art, music).
    2. Be patient, kind and compassionate with yourself, just like you are to others.
    3. Seek support – no one can take your difficult feelings away, but it helps to have someone support you when you’re dealing with the difficult feelings.

MANAGING BEHAVIOUR

  1. GET ENOUGH SLEEP – This is ESSENTIAL, especially the night before an exam! Poor sleep affects attention, concentration, mood, mental & physical health and ability to make decisions. As teens, you need at least 8-10 hours a night.
  2. Create a routine – This helps to establish balance and manage your time effectively. Prioritise what’s most important. Identify what time of day you study best and place your harder subjects in those time slots. Create space for breaks – you NEED rewards to keep working hard.
  3. Exercise – This helps your mood and sleep.
  4. Eat a balanced diet.
  5. Ask for help – It’s a great way to cope and everyone needs support sometimes.

Remember, it’s normal to be stressed around exams and while these strategies can’t take stress away, they can help you to manage it effectively.