Our best advice for coping with exam results anxiety
With all the hard work done and exams complete, all that’s left to do now is await the results. But we know, for many young people and their parents or carers, it’s not quite as simple as that.
We know this can be an incredibly difficult time. The uncertainty ahead may provoke unwelcome feelings, thoughts, and behaviours for those with eating disorders, anxiety, and other mental health issues.
In this post, Dr Nicole Hudson, Senior Psychologist with Altum Health, shares her advice for coping with exam results anxiety.
With tips for both young people and their families, Dr Nicole provides useful insight to help manage difficult thoughts and feelings in the lead up to getting exam results, the time afterwards, and the results day itself.
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Exam results anxiety unpicked
Let’s start by recognising that if your child is feeling stressed during the period between exams finishing and results day, they’re not alone.
The uncertainty of not knowing what to expect and having no control over the results in that envelope can lead to some difficult thoughts and feelings. We know that young people often put lots of pressure on themselves and this can sometimes lead to having to navigate tricky emotions.
Everyone who struggles with mental health difficulties, including eating disorders, experiences them differently, but the key thing to look for as a sign that your child may be struggling is a change in their thoughts or behaviours.
For example, changes could include:
- Becoming more withdrawn, including not talking to friends
- Worrying about what their future holds and ruminating over things which have happened
- Experiencing low mood
- Sleeping more, or not being able to sleep
- A change of eating habits
- Changes in behaviour, e.g. not wanting to do activities they may normally find enjoyable
It’s normal to experience some anxiety around results day, but, if you’re worried yourself or if a loved one is struggling to cope, here are some suggestions for healthy strategies for coping with exam results anxiety.
Manage the build up to exam results day
There’s no denying that the period between finishing exams and waiting for the results can feel like a lifetime. These are some tips that could help to manage any difficult thoughts and feelings you or your child may be experiencing during this time.
1) Stay calm and help them to stay calm
Anxiety around exam results is valid. It can be a very unsettling and worrying time. It’s very common for young people to be worried about their exam results; they’ve spent lots of time and energy working towards them. While it’s ‘normal’ to feel mild stress or anxiety around this time, sometimes young people struggle to cope with these feelings, which lead to them becoming problematic.
As a parent, you may also be struggling to contain your anxiety about your child’s future, and it’s crucial that you also maintain a level head.
It’s crucial to remember that the hard work is done. The exams are complete and there’s no way to change the results now.
Therefore, rather than worrying about something that’s already happened, encourage your child to talk about their feelings and practise techniques that help them to focus on the here and now. This can help them and you to be present in the moment and feel more in control.
Mindfulness practices, such as breathing and visualisation exercises are a great way of doing this. As is the 5-4-3-2-1 grounding technique which can help you both feel connected to the present moment.
Coping with exam results anxiety alone is tough.
For parents reading this, you may find it helpful to ask your child how they’re feeling. Let them know how much you love and care about them, how proud you are of them, and that you’re there for them, regardless of the results.
You could also think about sharing your own experiences of waiting for results, how it made you feel, and what you did to manage that. It can be important to listen to your child’s worries, validate their thoughts and feelings, and provide reassurance that everything will be ok. Use phrases such as, “I can understand why you may be worried about getting your results, it’s ok to feel apprehensive, it must be a really scary time”.
If you’re the one who’s waiting for exam results, maybe you could share how you feel with a parent or another relative; they may have been through this too and will be able to support you.
3) Practise self-care
For both a parent or a child, self-care is a really important strategy for coping with exam results anxiety.
While waiting for exam results, suggest to your child that they write their thoughts down on paper. Journalling can be a great way to encourage clarity and perspective.
Other simple self-care ideas include:
- Meeting up with friends and staying connected with others.
- Taking the opportunity to get back to the things they enjoyed before exams; doing things they love with people they love.
- Doing something nice for themselves, for example, taking a bath or indulging in a book.
- Getting out in nature for a walk.
As a parent, it can be helpful to model healthy behaviours, such as eating regularly, setting good sleep habits, being active, and practising mindfulness. This can support both you and your child.
4) Create a routine
Prior to the exams, life may have been governed by a relentless study timetable. Once this is all over, it can possibly leave your child feeling a little flat, lost, or isolated. Sometimes this can be referred to as the ‘post exam dip’.
It can be useful to encourage young people to create a new timetable that provides structure for their day, including a regular waking time, daily activities, and tasks.
Scheduling fun activities can be a great source of distraction, by helping to take their mind off the results day. It may be helpful to schedule activities which they can do with friends, family, and with other family members too. When it gets closer to results day, it’s a good idea to ask them what would be more helpful, and whether they’d prefer shared activities for distraction or more quiet, reflective time.
Manage anxiety around exam results day
On results day itself, there are strategies you may want to try to help reduce your child’s anxiety.
1) Plan ahead
One of the secrets to managing the stress surrounding exam results day is to plan ahead.
To reduce anticipation and create a ‘safety net’, have a conversation in advance about what the day will look like for your family and what your child thinks might prove tricky for them.
First, you could acknowledge that they may not sleep well the night before; this is normal and expected. Try to get sufficient rest in the build up to exam results day instead.
It may be helpful to discuss how they would like to open their results. For example, alone, or with someone they trust in a quiet place or with a group of friends?
You could also remind your child about the benefit of breathing and grounding techniques to help with regulation prior to opening their envelope and encourage them to take the time to read and digest their results.
Some young people have shared that it’s helpful to make a plan of action for after the results have been opened, too. For example, would your child like to go straight home, spend time with friends, or would they appreciate the family being together that evening?
If the results are not what was hoped for, is there someone they would like to talk it through with? This could be a teacher at school, a trusted friend or anyone else they trust.
2) More than a score
It can be important to have an open conversation about exam results to help give your child a sense of perspective. It may be helpful to remind them that you want them to do well, but you’re proud of them regardless of the results.
It’s often beneficial to remind your child that they are much more than grades on a piece of paper – their exam results do not define their worth. You can share with them what you value about them, including their personality, kindness, or musical ability.
Try to resist the temptation to compare and contrast results with the peer group. For young people struggling with an eating disorder or poor mental health especially, it may be helpful to acknowledge how hard they’ve worked to complete exams, whilst recovering from an eating disorder or mental health difficulty.
3) Plan for more than one outcome
If the results are not what was expected, it can be useful to have a plan mapped out with various options. For example, make sure you understand the clearing process if applying to university.
Parents are encouraged to speak positively about the future and provide plenty of reassurance. Just remember, the wait for exam results is a challenging time for everyone.
Overall, we feel that the most important way to help your child to cope with exam results anxiety is to stay calm and remind them that there are always more options.
We hope the tips within this post help you to do this. Try to communicate regularly with your child to avoid feelings becoming bottled up. If you’re concerned that your child is reverting to unhelpful coping strategies and would like to speak with a trained and licensed professional, please reach out to a member of our team.
Please book a free 20-minute consultation to find out how we can help.
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