Exercise and Exam Stress


April is Stress Awareness Month and I wanted to focus on how we can all help support the younger people in our lives, specifically through exam stress. 14-18-year-olds are currently going through an intense educational period as they approach GCSE, A’levels, final year of college or sixth form exam time, often feeling the pressure that these exams will have on their future.

In 2022 I wrote about how we can use exercise to help us manage stress – you can read this article here but I want to get a bit more specific about coping with exam stress.

The Stress Management Society have a theme this year that I identify with, and it is ‘Little by little’. On their website, they say ‘… for Stress Awareness Month (we) want to emphasise how even the smallest steps taken each day towards self-care and stress reduction can yield significant improvements in mental health over time’, to read more, click here.

As adults might start to recognise that we are feeling stressed and the changes in ourselves (past experiences help us notice patterns). It is possible that younger people might not see these signs and identify that they are stressed. It is our role as caregivers, family and friends to observe and intervene where we can, when we see the signs of stress and when it starts to affect their ability to perform at their best.

How to identify high stress levels in young adults:

There are a number of different signs of stress but some common ones to look out for are:

  • Changes in behaviour, being quieter than normal or short tempered.
  • Not sleeping well.
  • Changes in appetite.
  • Headaches, nausea, lethargy.
  • Lack of concentration, not wanting to do usual activities, hobbies or sports.

What we can do to help

If a young person is really struggling, a good place to start is to try to make an appointment with their GP. Some other actions we can help with in the short term are:

  • Ask gentle questions and listen to how they are feeling.
  • Offer advice, comfort and reassurance.
  • Encourage and demonstrate healthy habits – like gentle movement, going to bed a bit earlier, spending less tie on tech and eating a more balanced diet.
  • Encourage structured time for study and time away from study so they can get some fresh air and movement.
  • Help signpost them for more help if they need it, be that someone at school, college, online resources or where needed a councillor.

What type of movements will help

Gentle to moderate movement is ideal, nothing too strenuous as adrenalin and cortisol will be produced and add to the stress level. Movement once or twice a day for 15-20 minutes will also help them to digest the topic they are studying and sleep better. Examples of the kinds of exercise are:

  • A short walk outside.
  • A team sport with family or friends; football, basketball, tennis, badminton.
  • Something that makes them laugh or smile, such as table tennis or a fairly energetic computer game with someone (rather than alone).
  • A gentle jog or cycle.
  • A home or gym workout with moderate weights and intensity.

Any of the above will help use up restless energy and help with their endorphins and serotonin (our happy hormones). Promoting short rounds of movement (little by little), ideally daily and outside, won’t interrupt too much of their study time and help them stay on top of the pressure they are feeling.

The important thing is to encourage rather than add pressure to the situation, so invite them to join you for a walk around the block and check in on them or get them together with their mates for a short bit of movement. Support not pressure is a phrase I use with my clients (of all ages) as life can be stressful enough without me adding to it.

Training with an independent person, like a personal trainer can work too as it gives them someone different to talk to about the stresses they are facing and can also provide a structured break to help moderate the intensity.  

Good luck to all of those taking exams over the next few months and to those supporting them, get in touch to find out more about how I might be able to help a young person to manage exam stress.

You can find more information here – Supporting young people – Mental Health UK (mentalhealth-uk.org)

Sara McDonnell

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