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Exam stress and related topics: information and support

Many students today feel very pressured. As a department, we are very proud of our hard working and high achieving students, but good exam results are not the only measure for being a successful student. Besides, the most important thing for your family, for you and for us is your health.

This website aims at providing information and links about both preventing and treating stress related conditions. If you or a fellow student need immediate support, please turn to the fast response options listed on the right-hand side - if your are on a smart phone, scroll all the way down.

Handle your brain with care

If you overstress a bone, it may crack. If you overstress your brain, it may react with anxiety and depression. This can happen to anybody, but is particularly prevalent in university towns and has increased after the financial crises and again after the increase of tuition fees. It is also important to know that it hits many people worldwide (see WHO review). This NHS website clarifies symptoms and offers an online self-assessment test.

If you feel stuck, do not hesitate to contact the University Counselling Service, or to see a doctor in the Health Centre or in a surgery off-campus. Notify your personal tutor if your mood or energy levels are so low that you think your exam results may be affected.

Perception

You may perceive your current situation as overwelming or hopeless. However, this may be an impression fueled by low mood. In scientific terms, it may be nothing other than a few pathways in your brain being temporarily compromised, often after a period of stress. In other words, a perceived state of sadness and powerlessness may be a chemical trick your body plays on you to force you to get more rest. Part of this trick consists in providing you with rational justifications conveying that this perspective is a the only valid view of the world.

Getting beyond your current state

You do not have a lot of direct immediate control over this, but there is a broad range of powerful tools available both for preventing to drop in such a negative state and for getting out of it. Options include relaxation techniques you could easity try yourself and medication perscribed by a physician. Individual differences will determine what works for whom. Improvements typically happen in small steps rather than in one big leap. Links to expert advice and support are posted on the right-hand side (scroll all the way down if you are on a smart phone). The checklist below sounds banal, but for someone in a negative mood it is a huge achievement to follow it. Any of the items helps towards having some control over reversing negative trends and preventing them:

  • sleep regularly
  • eat & drink regularly
  • get frequent exercise (even just walking)
  • spend time outside during daylight hours
  • learn and practice a relaxation technique that suits you
  • rest when you rest, study when you study (switch off internet etc)
  • socialise

Long term support and prevention include techniques based on mindfulness, which originates in Eastern ancient philosophy: "This lets us stand back from our thoughts, and start to see their patterns. Gradually we can train ourselves to notice when our thoughts are taking over, and realise that thoughts are simply ‘mental events’ that do not have to control us." (Psychologist Mark Williams, Oxford).

Results day and beyond

Exams often work out roughly as hoped. At the same time, there is a non-zero probability that you will do much better than expected or that you fail to achieve what you wanted. Maybe your expectations were too high, maybe you were unlucky. Now you worry this ends up blocking the path to your career dreams. What's next?

You may still achieve your goal later, in some other way. But there are also many stories of the sort: "I really wanted to get into xyz; and I worked all these years towards it. Then I failed to get the marks... I was derailed for some time, eventually ended up doing abc - and I love it! I don't know why I had boxed myself in with considering only xyz."

Success and failure

One of the biggest challenges for young people at university is to adjust to the lower degree of predictablity. Stellar success at A-levels requires both being smart and working hard, but dealing with the variety of not yet familiar exam styles at university is an additional challenge. Uncertainty and unpredictability often feel desorienting and trigger overthinking and stress. Be generous with yourself and accept that progress usually includes failures - the choice being between obvious losses on the one hand, and missed opportunities (from avoiding hypothetical failures) on the other hand.

The connection between failure and success has become a theme in research about learning. For example, research on learning and mindset by developmental psychologist Carol Dweck has led to the concept of a growth mindset, which forms a basis for effective learning.

Examples

Here is a speech for students by someone who (among other things) has failed a lot. Here is a speech of former hedge fund analyst Salman Khan who set up an online academy to assist grade school students - and everybody else - in learning. Michael Jordan offers his personal statistics on the issue: "I've missed more than 9000 shots in my career. I've lost almost 300 games. 26 times, I've been trusted to take the game winning shot and missed. I've failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.”

What can I do now?

The best things you can do right now is probably either resting or revising - in the sense of an exclusive or. Among other things this means you switch off mobile phone, email, facebook, internet, television etc. while you study.

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