How to take control of exam stress - for parents and pupils

EXAM season is upon us and over the next couple of months school children and students across Scotland will be sitting their exams.

Pupils sitting an exam. Picture: TSPL

The pressure to do well in exams can often make us feel stressed and anxious, which can lead to psychical, behavioural and psychological symptoms. Exam time is difficult for not only the children involved, but parents too with many feeling unable to support their child’s situation.

Professor Ewan Gillon, chartered psychologist and clinical director of First Psychology Scotland, helps us understand the symptoms of stress and offers tips for children on managing exam anxiety, as well as tips for parents on how to help their child through this difficult time.

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How do I spot stress?

Prof Ewan Gillon, from First Psychology Scotland

Stress is a natural response to feeling under pressure. It releases hormones in our bodies, which often encourages us to feel motivated. However, when stress is ignored and allowed to continue for a prolonged period it can develop into anxiety and depression, which has a negative impact on our physical and mental health.

To spot the signs of stress ask yourself these three questions:

Am I having trouble sleeping and eating? Physical symptoms such as headaches, aches and pains, tiredness, lack of appetite or losing weight, problems sleeping, feeling restless, skin problems and diarrhoea or constipation are all notable symptoms of stress.

Am I reacting in ways I wouldn’t normally? Being more irritable or easily angered, becoming emotional and tearful, finding it difficult to concentrate and even relying on caffeine and energy drinks are all behavioural signs of stress.

Prof Ewan Gillon, from First Psychology Scotland

Do I feel like I can’t cope? Feeling hopeless about the situation, continual worrying and being oversensitive suggests we are overly stressed.

How do I manage stress?

Managing stress is about taking control of the situation to avoid letting things get on top of you. By following these steps, you can help eliminate harmful stress:

Get real – the most common source of exam stress are unreasonable and unrealistic expectations, usually about the consequences of not doing as well as you would like. Reality test your thinking around exams remembering that there are a variety of outcomes that may be okay in different ways, and that should things not go as you wish this won’t be the end of the world.

Talk to friends, teachers and parents – if you’re feeling overwhelmed don’t bottle it up. Chances are, your friends will be feeling under the same pressure, and by talking to them you will feel as though you’re not alone. Get support from teachers and parents too – remember they have also been through exams and might be able to offer advice.

Exercise – Going for a run, or working out at the gym might feel like the last thing you have time for, but by setting aside 20-30 minutes each day can help you feel motivated and alert and help you get more done in the long run. Exercise helps us relieve pent up tension and frustration, as well as taking our minds off what is making us stressed.

Have fun – Go out with your friends and take part in activities you enjoy. This creates positive feelings and can help take our minds off what is making us feel stressed, contributing to our overall mental wellbeing.

Reward yourself with treats – if you’re struggling to concentrate and stay motivated, set yourself a deadline and once you’ve reached it allow yourself a treat. This can be anything from a short break to your favourite snack. This helps us feel as though we are achieving goals, which makes us feel as though we are back in control.

Practice relaxation techniques – If you find yourself starting to feel overwhelmed or feel as though you may be overreacting to a situation, practice relaxation techniques such as mindfulness or meditation. Sometimes this is all our brain needs in order to de-stress, calm down and refresh your mind-set.

Plan and prioritise – Developing a study plan with small, deliverable goals based on clear priorities will help generate a sense of control and satisfaction, both of which will help lower stress levels. Over time, this approach will build a positively reinforcing cycle and instil confidence.

Tips for parents

Are you feeling helpless whilst your child is stressed out about their exams? Are you worried about how they will perform? Here are some tips on how you can help your child feel less stressed:

Worried? Keep it to yourself - although it might help you to let off some steam and express your worries about your child’s exam revision or success, it certainly won’t help your child. Try to listen rather than preach, and encourage rather than diminish.

Distract them – What does your child enjoy doing? Take them out for lunch, shopping or even for a walk to help take their minds off their exams.

Reassure them – Let them know you are proud of them no matter how well or how badly they think their exams have gone.

Don’t take things personally – If your child is feeling stressed and lashes out at you, take some time away from the situation to let them calm down.

Be realistic – Don’t set unrealistic expectations for your child if they are unlikely to achieve them. Most children don’t want to disappoint their parents and can often feel more anxious if they anticipate not doing as well as their parents expect.

Professor Ewan Gillon, is a chartered psychologist and clinical director of First Psychology Scotland.

He will be presenting a free webinar on ‘Building resilience to exam stress’ for both parents and children on Thursday 21st April 2016 from 7pm – 8pm. Reserve your place here: or visit for further information and tips on managing stress.