In August 2018, TES (formally The Times Educational Supplement) reported on its website that ‘New GCSE’s taking toll on pupils mental health’, which they then went on to claim could result in depression, panic attacks and suicidal thoughts. How we got to this point is a story for another blog but for now I wanted to share some strategies for how young people can maintain a good level of mental health during this coming exam season. What follows are my suggestions based on research, experience and the feedback from young people and are in no way a substitute for professional help if there are concerns about a young person’s mental wellbeing.
Mental health professionals refer to five ways of wellbeing to improve and maintain good mental health. Detailed below are my ideas of how these areas can be developed and maintained to provide optimal mental health during this stressful time for all those sitting exams over the coming weeks.
The NHS state there is evidence to suggest that ‘physical exercise helps protect people against anxiety'; a state that can be exacerbated during exam time due to worry about exam content or fear of failure. There is also a school of thought that supports the idea that physical activity boosts positive changes in mood, as well as raising self-esteem, self-control and the ability to rise to a challenge; key attributes when preparing for next month’s exams. Young people should be encouraged at this critical time to leave their rooms (and revision) for regular short bursts of activity that may involve walking the dog, a game of football, a run or bike ride to reap the benefits to mental health that physical exercise can offer.
Connecting with others
Building connections with family, friends, teachers and peers are ‘cornerstones of your life’ and you should take time to develop them according to the Government publication: ‘Five Ways to Mental Wellbeing’. During exam time, when life can be stressful and activities repetitive as kids notch up months of revision activity, it vital that they connect with others. Kids should be encouraged to take time out and enjoy a meet up with friends at the cinema, for a kick about or catch up over a Maccie D’s. Any revision timetable should have a balance of down time as well as full on revision activity.
Parents and carers can be so annoying during exam time – I know; I am one! – constantly offering to help test knowledge, prepare snacks, cups of tea and hugs; none of which is wanted but it is important as parents and carers to create space for young people to talk about how they feel to find ways of relieving some of the symptoms of stress. Likewise, talking to a teacher about support may not be cool, but they have access to additional resources and heaps of experience on exams that can be tapped into. It isn’t always easy to confess when things get tricky during exam season but talking to a trusted adult could be beneficial.
Giving to others
The concept of giving time or using a skill to help others may seem a bit random when lots of kids are utilising all their time to revise but that is exactly why it would be a good idea to stop, take a short break and give to others. It doesn’t have to bite into huge chunks of revision time as it can be built into daily tasks, but the experiences will be invaluable to mental wellbeing. For example; offering a seat to an elderly passenger on the train or making mum a coffee (just in case my son is reading this!) are small ways to put someone else’s needs first. Furthermore, it is said that the act of giving reduces stress and improves mood, self-esteem and happiness – who doesn’t need a bit of that leading up to exam time?
Kids may not want to believe me now but learning is intrinsic to good mental health because it is through education that we learn and grow; aiding personal development which will increase confidence, self-esteem and instil a sense of motivation for success – but where to start? Consider writing affirmations - little notes of encouragement and intention – that help focus the mind on the end goal. For example, sticking with the theme of exams a written affirmation may look like this: ‘I believe I will succeed in my exams because I am working hard during revision time to give me the best chance of hitting my grades. I am prepared to do whatever it takes to secure my grades next month.’ Repeat affirmation, every morning out loud whilst visualising your preferred future.
Meditation isn’t for everyone, but it is possible for everyone to take time out each day to clear the mind. This practice of being mindful could be undertaken in between revision sessions simply by taking a moment to empty the mind of its busy-ness, breathe and be at peace, before continuing with studies. Practised regularly, mindfulness can boost attention and concentration. For individuals that would like to try guided meditation I am a huge fan of Headspace and it has sessions that cover everything from stress, anxiety to exam pressure!
The final word
Trying some, if not all, of the above strategies for maintaining good mental health during exam season will bring about a sense of wellbeing and practised over time will provide excellent strategies to take forward into adult life too. Go smash those grades!
About the author
Lisa provides one-to-one coaching with young people in their homes to develop revision plans, identify helpful revision methods and exam preparation for GCSE’s and A levels. Check out social media for reviews and recommendations of this service.