How to make the grade in coming to terms with exams pressure

Some students just freeze up in an exam and, as a consequence, they don't perform to the level they are capable of
Some students just freeze up in an exam and, as a consequence, they don't perform to the level they are capable of
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The NSPCC has reported a 200 per cent rise in the number of young people seeking counselling over exam stress.

Aasma Day talks to health and education experts about why exam time is so stressful for some young people and what steps they can take to alleviate it.

The difference between a really high and really low anxious student is one GCSE grade per subject.

Prof Dave Putwain

Even students who have revised hard and prepared thoroughly for their exams can get into the room and completely freeze up.

Prof Dave Putwain, from Edge Hill University, has spent the last decade researching the stresses and pressures faced by students when they are doing exams and his research has mainly focussed on GCSEs.

Prof Putwain says although a few nerves or butterflies in the stomach are normal before exams, it is when it starts tipping over into stress that it starts affecting the performance of students.

He explains: “Everyone gets anxious before a big and important event.

“For some, a moderate level of anxiety is a terrific motivator but it is the worry that is the problematic bit.

“What you get is a proportion of students where it tips over into a debilitating state.

“It is not always visible. Some people have panic attacks which are visible.

“But the cycle of worry can’t be seen from the surface and some students get locked into this worry.

“When one of these students gets into an exam, even if they have studied hard, and revised, they get into the exam and just freeze up.

“They describe it as ‘going blank’.

“They find it really difficult to recall things they have learnt and find it difficult to concentrate and organise their thoughts in a coherant fashion.

“As a consequence, they don’t perform to the level they are capable of.

“It is completely unrelated to ability. It affects the whole spectrum of ability.

“The difference between a really high and really low anxious student is one GCSE grade per subject.”

Melanie Greenhalgh, senior cognitive behaviour specialist at Lancashire Care MHS Foundation Trust, says they run the Minds Matter service which targets people with mild to moderate mental health problems which most people experience at some point in their life.

She says: “This service deals with people who are suffering from things like stress, depression, low mood and sleep problems.

“One in 10 people in a child or younger person’s age group suffer from a common mental health problem.

“What we have found as well is that in more than 50 per cent of people with a mental health problem, the problem has its roots in childhood.

“When adults come to our services, the problem started way back.

“We are keen to access people at an early age.

“The exam period is certainly a very stressful time for young people.

“In Preston and the local area, we have a lot of universities and colleges so have a lot of people who struggle at this time of year.

“Another thing we see as a service is that teenagers are often in emotional turmoil because their bodies and minds are developing.

“Body image and eating disorders come with that age group.

“There is a lot of pressure on performances during exam time for young people.

“They are trying to live up to their own, their parents and their college or school’s expectations of them. It is an enormous pressure.

“We are living in a period where jobs are not as readily available and this puts more pressure on people.

“Sometimes, because of the pressure, people will proscrastinate or put things off. They are afraid of what the outlook will be.

“We offer support and people can self refer to our service.”

Minds Matter is running some free six week courses in partnership with the University of Central Lancashire in Stress Control.

These courses are co-delivered by Minds Matter and UCLan staff and are open to everyone, not just university staff and students.

The courses are Stress Control and are ideal to help reduce stress during exam times. There is also an Improve Your Sleep course.

Both are six week evening courses and are free. People can self-refer via or by calling: 01772 773437.

People wanting a listening ear out of hours can call the Lancashire Wellbeing helpline between 7pm to 11pm on weekdays and from midday to midnight on weekends. Call: 0300 2225931