Dr Ruth: revision stress

My daughter has always been studious, worked hard and done well at school. She is due to sit her bac this month and has suddenly become really stressed about it. She locks herself away in her room, studying late every night and is bad tempered with everyone. She’s never been like this before and I don’t know how to help. 

Exams at any level can be stressful, but terminal exams such as A levels or the baccalauréate have such a lot riding on them that they can induce even greater levels anxiety. This may help explain the change to your daughter’s normal approach to her work. 
Stress is one of the body's natural responses to something that is threatening or frightening and, in itself, is not necessarily harmful. Research shows that mild forms of stress can motivate and energise people and slightly increased stress levels may enhance alertness and motivation to work. However, if your daughter’s stress levels become too high this could cause difficulties such as impairing her ability to prepare for and perform during the exams.
Poor or inefficient preparation can often increase stress about exams. It sounds as though your daughter is already working hard, but it may be worth talking to her about how she is revising. Ensuring that she has effective study skills will help reduce her stress by making her feel more in control of her work and more confident that she will succeed. Help your daughter to prioritise and ‘chunk’ her work into manageable sections. Try using a colour coding system so that she knows which topics will need a lot of work and which she is fairly confident in. Work out how many days until the exam and how many study sessions there are within this, then allocate ‘chunks’ to each of the sessions so that she knows she has everything covered. Having a clear list of what needs to be learnt also helps by allowing the student to cross things off and see the progress she is making. 
Make sure, too, that she builds in study breaks – short bursts of revision (approximately 45 minutes) followed by a short break are far more productive than one really long session. 
Finally, talk with your daughter about different ways of revising. Mind maps using colours and pictures are a good way of summarising and remembering key ideas and the links between them. There are also plenty of online resources that can help, and provide a welcome alternative to book learning.
When the body is stressed, it releases chemicals into the bloodstream that make the body feel nervous and on edge. This is what leads to the headaches, difficulties sleeping and being unusually bad tempered that are commonly associated with stress. Looking after your daughter’s physiological needs will help reduce her stress levels. Try to ensure that she is eating well. Cook her favourite meals; make sure that there are healthy snacks in the house and offer her treats. Lack of sleep can make anything seem worse than it really is. Try to set limits on how late into the evening your daughter revises and ensure that she has at least an hour off before going to bed so that she has chance to relax and unwind. A warm bath or a chat with friends or listening to music can all aid relaxation and lead to a better nights sleep. Finally, make sure that your daughter is getting plenty of exercise. Exercise helps counteract the hormones and nervous energy produced by stress, increasing the blood flow around the body and leading to clearer thinking.
Stress can also have a psychological element to it. Your daughter has previously managed her exams stress well - what is different this time? Talk to her about this and remind her of successful strategies she has used in the past.  Often in these situations, people begin to doubt themselves and develop negative thought patterns, questioning their ability to cope. Help your daughter to identify what it is that is making her stressed and develop an alternative ‘coping statement’ such as ‘I’ve worked hard, I know I can do this’, that she can say to herself when she feels a wave of anxiety coming on. Simple relaxation strategies such as practicing deep breathing in and out through the nose, counting to five each way can really help. Also try dabbing a drop of a scent that your daughter associates with being happy and relaxed onto her sleeve just before the exam. Aromas and smells have a direct influence on our moods and can instantly transport us to a more relaxed state. 
Children often report that the greatest pressure at exam time comes from their family. Try to keep things in perspective. Be reassuring and positive and make sure your daughter knows that failing isn’t the end of the world. After the exam, encourage her to talk it through with you, and then move on rather than dwelling on things that can’t be changed. Help her to plan a treat to celebrate the end of her exams. This should be a well deserved reward so base it on the amount of hard work she has put in rather than on her grades or whether or not she passes.  

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