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Mind Matters: Five tips to manage exam stress during the COVID-19 pandemic

Have you got exams coming up? Here are five tips you can use to cope with academic and exam stress during the pandemic.

Dr Tay Kai Hong
Dr Tay Kai Hong

Published: 8 October 2021, 5:43 PM

The pandemic has thrown our routines into disarray. In the era of home-based learning, working from home and periodic heightened alert measures, many of us face added stress in our daily lives. 

For youth, there could be specific challenges brought upon by the pandemic, from tension with family members being in close quarters to feeling socially isolated from friends they are socially distanced from.

They may also face additional academic stress caused by distractions at home or struggles with communication in classrooms while learning with masks on.

Thankfully, there are some simple ways to better manage academic and exam stress during the pandemic.

1. Get active

Exercising boosts your concentration, memory, energy, and mood, giving you the brain power that you need for exams.

Set aside some time in your schedule for a 15-minute run or swim. Exercising outdoors also provides you with the opportunity to get some fresh air. Just remember to mask up after you have finished your workout!

 

exercising-helps-boost-concentration
Exercising for 15 minutes helps to boost your concentration and give you the cognitive power to succeed in your exams. PHOTO CREDIT: BARANI VICNAN

 

If you prefer to stay at home, consider incorporating home workouts into your study routine. There are several home-bound exercises that are readily available on YouTube. Bodyweight exercises, for instance, are a quick and convenient way to give you an energy boost in between hours of cramming notes for an exam.

2. Find a study buddy and stay connected with your loved ones

According to cognitive learning theories, testing retains knowledge more effectively than mere reading. In addition, collaborative learning with peers facilitates learning better than studying alone. 

Find a study buddy, preferably one who studies at a similar pace as you. Having a study buddy not only allows you to look out for each other, but it also makes studying much more enjoyable. Through Zoom, you can host virtual study sessions and test each other on topics you have revised.

 

home-based-remote-learning-laptop
Having a study buddy and testing each other on topics you have revised help you retain information more effectively. PHOTO CREDIT: JULIAN TAY

 

Exam stress can also make us irritable and affect our family life. Likewise, a chaotic family environment at home will hinder your ability to study effectively.

Always remind yourself to practise kindness with your family members, especially if they are in a moment of stress. When we are tolerant and considerate, others will take notice and reciprocate. 

If you find yourself getting annoyed and frustrated, take a step back and do not react in the heat of the moment. It is better to respond with wisdom and calm rather than reacting mindlessly. Although we are unable to control how others treat us, we can definitely control how we respond in such situations.

Last but not least, don’t be afraid to turn to your friends and family whenever you need a listening ear. Look for someone whom you trust and listens without judging you.

3. Focus on gratitude

Anxiety and stress are part and parcel of life. However, stress isn’t always bad. A healthy dose of stress motivates us to do better, be productive and improve ourselves. But when stress becomes excessive, chronic and poorly managed, it can lead to burnout.

In Singapore, the emphasis on academic achievement and self-imposed expectations can make exam stress unbearable for some. To keep things in perspective, we can consciously remind ourselves of the little blessings in life that we often take for granted. 

There is more to life than exams. Good grades are not a prerequisite to a happy successful life, and there is more than one way to define success. 

In order to cultivate gratitude, you can practise listing “Three Good Things” you experienced on a daily or weekly basis. Record your little successes in a journal no matter how small or big they are.

Whether it’s a chapter you just revised, a workout you completed, a good conversation you had, a nice breakfast that mom prepared, a chit chat your dad, the good weather, or the company of good friends, this practice has scientifically been proven to boost your emotional well-being.

Alternatively, you can prepare “care packs” that include snacks and little gifts for your friends and teachers to show your appreciation. 

4. Get plenty of rest

Sleep is essential for learning and memory consolidation. Exam stress will probably disrupt sleep for most (it certainly did for me), so it is necessary to practise good sleep habits.

Establish a consistent schedule for your sleeping and waking up hours. It is recommended for you to implement a 20-minute bedtime routine to calm your mind and body.

Some good sleep habits you can implement into your routine include taking a warm bath, having a light snack, doing some light stretching, reading (not exam content!), or listening to soothing music. Avoid bringing your study notes or studying on your bed as it is a sure way to keep your mind active and alert. 

In fact, keep your notes, laptops and textbooks away from the bedroom. We don’t want our brains to associate the bed with these stresses. Your bed should remain a temple of calm and tranquillity. Instead, establish a designated study area at home to create that separation between work and personal time.

 

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Creating a distinct study space at home helps you establish boundaries between work and leisure activities. PHOTO CREDIT: JAI

 

If you are unable to fall asleep, get up and repeat your bedtime routine. Oftentimes, forcing ourselves to fall asleep makes us even more stressed and restless. One way to calm the mind is to focus on ambient sounds such as the air-con, the fan, or the traffic outside as you lie down with your eyes closed. 

Some students also become night owls during home-based learning (HBL). Students find that they are more productive at night and prefer to hibernate during the day. Short periods of day-night reversal are unlikely to be physically harmful, but they can disrupt students’ routines once school resumes. 

In the one-week period leading up to exams, adjust your sleep schedule such that you are at peak alertness and well-rested during the exam. 

If you feel stressed out and sleepless, watch this video to learn more about good sleeping habits.

5. Change up your study routine

We are more likely to procrastinate when the task at hand seems too daunting. Thus, establishing a study schedule in advance and breaking up mammoth tasks into smaller pieces helps you pace yourself to prevent burnout. 

After completing your task, remember to take short breaks and reward yourself with a snack or leisure activity. This is because spaced-out learning is more effective than mass learning. 

 

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Taking a moment to relax and reboot is essential for achieving a productive study session. PHOTO CREDIT: JESHOOTS.COM VIA UNSPLASH

 

I used to study at Starbucks or Changi Airport with a study buddy as it helped to break the monotony of studying. Unfortunately, studying and loitering outside of home may no longer be advisable due to the ongoing pandemic. Instead, you can check if your school library is open or if there are any study rooms available for use. You might also want to bring a friend along for a study session.

If you feel anxious and are unable to concentrate,  try this simple mindful breathing exercise. It takes practice to truly master a skill, so don’t be shy to practise this exercise over several days.

Dr Tay Kai Hong is a practising psychiatrist at Sengkang General Hospital. He wrote this article with inputs from his wife, a junior college educator. 

Where to get help:

– Samaritans of Singapore (24 hours): 1767
– Institute of Mental Health (24 hours): 6389 2222
– Singapore Association for Mental Health (Adults): 1800 283 7019 (Mon to Fri, 9am to 6pm)
– TOUCHline (Youth): 1800 377 2252 (Mon to Fri, 9am to 6pm)
– Care Corner (Mandarin hotline): 1800 3535 800 (Daily, 10am to 10pm)

For more mental well-being resources, check out Youthopia’s resource page with everything from mental health self-assessments to tips for coping with challenging seasons in life.

Other articles in this Mind Matters series:

Five signs that someone you know may not be coping well with stress
How to broach the topic of mental well-being with your loved ones
Five ways to better manage stress while alternating between working from home and the office


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