3 Top Tools to Manage the Exam Stress and Overwhelm
Natalie Costa, from Power Thoughts: Insights by a mindfulness and coaching specialist.
The exam season is soon upon us and this can often cause a lot of stress, worry and anxiety for our children. Sleepless nights and emotional meltdowns are regularly experienced and for some children the pressure to perform just feels all too much. From the recent publications within the media regarding mental well-being, it comes as no surprise that supporting our children’s mental and emotional welfare is as important as their academic success.
Increasingly, we adults are exploring and investing in improving our emotional and mental health. For you it might be self-care habits, being more aware of having offline time, perhaps using apps and self-development books to bring more clarity and calm to your day. Every little helps and even small shifts can make a big difference.
Up to now, the focus on well-being and building life skills has been reserved for grown-ups, but what about if we were to tailor and design these mindful methods to suit and support our children?
What if our children could be taught a tool kit to tap into in their early years, that would help them during these crucial life stages? Tools that would develop their life skills regarding being able to manage their feelings of overwhelm especially when it comes to their school work and preparing for their exams. Providing them with the insight to understand how stress impacts their brain and their learning, teaching them the tools to stay calm, be focused and respond to stressful situations from a more resourceful state.
Below I have shared 3 of my top strategies that I teach during my ‘Exam Excellence’ sessions which have helped over 1000’s of children feel calmer, focused and confident for their upcoming exams.
The Brain Splurge:
Feeling anxious and worried is often caused by children feeling overwhelmed with their school work. When they’re in this state it’s very difficult for them to think clearly, get prepared and concentrate on the material they need to revise.
I often explain to children that feeling overwhelmed is just like having a very ‘full brain’.
What we want to do is ‘empty our brain’ and only pay attention to one or two tasks at a time.
So make it fun! Get paper, felt-tip pens or coloured pencils, etc.
Encourage your child to write or draw everything that their brain is currently ‘full’ of, the big thoughts and the little thoughts (thoughts about school, tests, homework, friends, home life, clubs, etc.) Write all of these thoughts onto a sheet of paper.
Next, score each thought on a scale from 1 – 10 (1= it’s not a big deal, to 10 = this is taking up a lot of my head space, making me feel anxious or worried.)
Allow your child to choose only one or two thoughts from that list which they want to work on and leave the rest. Then ask this question: “What one little action can you take in the next couple of days that will make you feel better about this stressed or worried thought?”
Using this tool supports your child step out of the overwhelm and it also helps to put things into perspective.
Our breath is a tool which we can instantly use to help shift our state, especially when those feelings of overwhelm take over. During the workshops we explore the connection between our thoughts and the physiological responses in our body. Whenever we feel stressed, anxious or overwhelmed we instantly trigger our ‘stress response’ which causes us to ‘fight back, freeze or run away.’ When this takes place we are not able to think clearly and we struggle to make rational decisions. Our heart rate and breathing also increases, which in turn increases our stress response.
To begin to step out of this negative spiraling loop of overwhelm, it’s important to understand where we feel these feelings in our body (butterflies in my tummy, heart beating faster, clammy hands, etc.) All of these are completely normal responses, however by having this awareness, we can begin to become more aware of what is going on internally. Noticing that when we feel like this, instead of giving in to our emotions, we can instead tune into our breathing to help us stay calm and in control.
By slowing our breathing down it begins to lower the stress response and also keeps us grounded, in present moment. During the workshops we explore Power Breathing, which involves changing the way we breathe – we take in deep belly breathes through our nose and release our breath through our mouth. Ideally the in-breath should be shorter than the out-breath (in for 3 and out for 5).
Encourage your child to use their Power Breathing when they notice the ‘stress signals’ as this will support them to stay calm and respond from a more resourceful state. In this way they are also able to gain greater control over their thoughts and reactions.
Break it down
Whenever I speak to children about their study routines and habits they share how they often set aside large chunks of time to revise their work. This is a positive start; however our brains may have a difficult time staying focused for that length of time. Instead, encourage them to break it into smaller 30 minute chunks, with a 5 – 10 minute break in between.
This is taken from the famous Pomodoro Technique, a time management method developed by Francesco Cirillo in the late 1980s. The technique uses a timer to break down work into intervals, traditionally 25 minutes in length, separated by short breaks.
I also find that this is a great way to get started. When the procrastination or feelings of resistance want to take over, it often feels more achievable to sit and revise for 30 minute as opposed to a longer, two hour session!
These are just three of my favourite strategies which I teach, either during school and small group workshops or within a 1:1 setting. The tools and strategies taught are easy for children and parents to understand and implement. With the correct strategies on hand, exams need not be an overwhelming experience. Encourage your child to apply these tools so that they are feeling calmer, prepared and confident for their exams!
Natalie Costa, from Power Thoughts
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