Coping with exam stress: our expert tips

As a psychologist and a parent of teens, I’m in the midst of exam stress myself right now. And, I’ve seen how much pressure the exam period puts on parents and young people. That pressure to do well combined with surging hormones creates the perfect storm in many households. 

In this post, I’d like to share my insights into the nature of exam stress, explain how it can be used as a positive, and offer some practical ways to help manage GCSE and A-level exam stress.

What causes exam stress?

First of all, I think it might be helpful to understand a bit more about stress. It’s a natural response that occurs when individuals perceive a situation as challenging or threatening to their well-being. It creates a ‘fight or flight’ response as adrenaline and cortisol flood the body to cope with the perceived threat.

In the context of studying for your GCSE and A-level exams, it’s important to note that some stress is entirely normal. It shows that you care, that you want to do well, and meet expectations. 

The role of stress

We often think of the word ‘stress’ as a negative, but in fact, the right level of stress is essential to get stuff done. 

Stress is a motivator, helping you to get your head down and revise, stay on top of your study schedule, and do your best. This is known as ‘eustress’ – a ‘good’ stress. A healthy dose of eustress helps with personal growth and building resilience.

However, when stress levels become overwhelming or chronic, it has a detrimental effect on your mental health, performance, and overall well-being. This is known as ‘distress’. For those with existing mental health difficulties, they may struggle even more. Stress can create a lot of ‘all or nothing’ thinking, for example thinking that if you don’t get certain grades, there’s no other option and you’ve somehow ‘failed’.

Is exam stress always a bad thing?

Stress is not inherently good or bad. It’s actually the way we perceive and respond to it that shapes its impact. 

As we touched upon earlier, in moderation, stress can propel you forward. It can enhance your performance, sharpen your focus, and help with problem-solving. All important  attributes our ancestors would have relied on for survival. Nowadays, these qualities are also what help you rise to the academic challenges of studying for your GCSE and A-level exams.  

But for many people, exam stress may reach unmanageable levels. It manifests as ‘distress’, which plays out in a number of different ways. Anxiety, burnout, digestive issues, headaches, poor sleep, and problems with concentration are all common signs of a state of ‘distress’. 

If you’re living with an eating disorder, stress can make you feel more vulnerable and may lead you to fall back on familiar coping strategies, such as restriction or bingeing. If you, or someone you know, is struggling, please know this can happen during times of stress, but that expert help is available

So how do you prevent distress from taking hold? It’s all about being tuned in to your stress levels, listening to your body, recognising when it’s time to take a break, and adopting healthy coping strategies.

Strategies for coping with exam stress

If you’re feeling overwhelmed with exam stress, we can help. There are plenty of strategies you can adopt to help navigate this challenging time and protect your physical and emotional well-being.

1. Practice self-care

While stress can help to motivate you to focus on your studies, it’s important to get the right balance. Dedicate time to activities that help you to feel relaxed and re-energised, such as exercise, walking the dog, a spot of baking, or even a siesta! Making time for hobbies that bring you joy is crucial for managing stress and recharging your batteries, as is a good night’s sleep. 


2. Break tasks down into manageable chunks

Revising all of your course materials across multiple subjects can feel like an insurmountable task. Rather than feeling overwhelmed, create a study schedule to help break it down into smaller chunks. Be realistic about what you can achieve each day and build in time for regular breaks and the self-care we mentioned earlier.


3. Know what works for you

This won’t be the first time you’ve had to prepare for a test of some nature, so think about your study setup. Create a study plan that best suits your needs: 

  • Will you revise in the library or at home? 
  • Do you prefer to work in the same spot, or move around throughout the day? 
  • Do you study best on your own or as part of a group? 
  • How long can you revise before you need a break? 
  • Would you benefit from doing practice papers under exam conditions?

4. Practice mindfulness

Mindfulness and breathing exercises are two effective ways to reduce feelings of overwhelm and stress and increase your focus and clarity. One of my favourite practices, which is quick and simple and requires no special equipment, is the 5-4-3-2-1 grounding technique. Give it a try!


5. Reward yourself

Studying for exams can feel like a repetitive cycle, so give yourself regular breaks and rewards to maintain motivation. You may find that you eat more snacks than usual, and that’s ok. This is a challenging time, you are pushing yourself for long periods, so give your brain the fuel it needs to focus. 


6. Maintain perspective

As a parent of teens studying for GCSEs and A-levels, I understand how pressurised this time can feel. And not so long ago, I was in your shoes, studying for exams. What I would urge you to remember is that exams do not define your worth or your identity. Sure, you want to do your best, but exams are just one aspect of your life.


7. Seek support

Also, you’re not the first, and you won’t be the last person to feel stressed during exam time. Friends, family members, and teachers are all likely to have experienced similar feelings; talking about your concerns can provide a different perspective and valuable reassurance. Alternatively, reach out to a licensed mental health professional for help.


Advice for parents to help with exam stress

My advice for parents? Be understanding and encouraging. Coupled with exam stress, your teen is also navigating a flood of hormones, which can add another layer of intense emotions. 

To help your child manage GCSE or A-level exam stress, model healthy coping strategies, provide a supporting environment, and encourage open communication.

For example, make time each day to take a break and go for a walk – going together creates the ideal opportunity to have a conversation and find out how they’re feeling. Take the pressure off of chores, and keep the snack cupboard well stocked!

Emotions are inevitably high right now and it might be that everyone is a bit on edge at home. We might not be the best versions of ourselves. We might be more reactive than usual. My advice is to cut each other some slack, and step away; it’s not always necessary to have the last word. And while your teen might not appear to take your advice on board, I’m sure they’re tucking it away for later!

More than a score

Stress is an inevitable part of the exam period. However, by reframing stress and understanding the difference between ‘helpful’ and ‘unhelpful’ stress, I hope you can learn how to use it to your advantage, minimise its negative effects, and navigate this period with greater ease.

It’s often the people who push themselves the hardest who end up the least happy, so I encourage you to be compassionate with yourself, prioritise self-care, and find a healthy balance that works for you.

Remember, your academic success is just one part of your journey; your overall health, well-being, and happiness matter above all else. 

Some of you may have your future mapped out and others may need a little bit more time, and that’s absolutely fine. You may not feel ready to make these big life decisions, especially after the COVID pandemic. 

Remember, this is just one small snapshot in your life. Before you know it, it’s going to be over and you’ll be preparing for university, a gap year, a summer festival, or whatever else you have planned, looking back on this achievement with pride. 

We all find our way in life, regardless of grades. There’s more than one road in this life – everybody takes their own path and we all end up where we’re meant to be. 

If you or someone you know is struggling with exam stress, please get in touch with Altum Health to find out how we can support you. You can book a free, 20-minute consultation here. 

Wishing everyone well in their exams, 

Dr Courtney

Share this article

Download our Body Image Worksheet today

Work through our guided steps, and improve your relationship with your body. Enter your details to receive it straight away!

Thank you for requesting our Body Image Worksheet. It is winging its way to you now, so please check your email inbox (and spam folder) to make sure you receive it!