How to Cope with Exam Stress Sustainably

Images: Edna Lewis; Outfit: Suitsupply & Vivienne Westwood

Once the Christmas dust has settled, exam stress and the anxiety of a new year can become all consuming. Dan Pontarlier, college tutor and sustainability consultant, shares his tips on how to manage your pre-exam jitters and revision stress.

After the festivities of December comes the time of exams. The holiday season draws to a close and, after those precious moments of tranquillity, the storm returns: exams are just around the corner.

As a teacher who has also been a student for a long time, I recommend different techniques that are realistic and effective in dealing with the stress of exams in the most healthy and sustainable way possible. While crucial in the life of students, we can’t forget the anxiety that exam season can generate; just how are we going to absorb all that information quickly enough? From meditation to time management, it is important to know how to best prepare yourself to deal with stress at this time and achieve stability and cohesiveness in our daily actions. To get started, here are a few of the techniques that I recommend.

Manage Your Time

We tend to leave everything to the last minute, meaning knowledge is not absorbed properly and is set to be forgotten in the near future. It seems like a cliché, but when professors recommend students to study a little bit every day, it is for a specific reason. Going slow and steady means that we can better acquire knowledge and reduce that pre-exam stress that many people suffer when they look at all the information they have to absorb in a short amount of time. It might sound burdensome and a lot to handle, but it is easy if we know how to manage time and prioritize tasks and for there are a couple of techniques, I can recommend for this. 

Make Your Big Inventory

This simple trick helps us to categorize the tasks at hand according to their level of importance and urgency. All you need to do is create a table divided into the following categories: urgent, important, not urgent and not important. This helps us consider all the pending tasks that we have – you can even use a tool like or Trello if it helps you to visualise this. I recommend making and updating the table on a monthly or weekly basis, depending on everything that you have to do. 

Try the Pomodoro Method 

Following the work of the author Francesco Cirillo, the Pomodoro Technique is one of the most used and most effective ways to perform tasks and focus on them. It is used to avoid distraction and increase the work performance, as well as it give you a boost of personal satisfaction when you realize all the tasks that you were able to do. Start by dividing your tasks in 25-minute slots – these are known as Pomodori. The next steps are very easy:

  • From your big inventory, choose the tasks that you want to accomplish that day, and create a To Do list. I recommend a maximum of 20 work pomodori per day. 
  • Add a circle for every 25-minute time slot you need to finish each task. So, if you have to develop a case study and it’s going to take 75 minutes, add three circles next to it on your list.
  • Set the timer for 25 minutes and work on the task until it rings, then cross off the circle next to the task you just did.
  • Take a five-minute break. Try to really take some time out, trying not to overthink things or do any work during those five minutes. Perhaps get yourself a glass of water or a herbal tea to enjoy instead. 
  • Set the timer again and repeat the two previous steps.
  • Every 4 Pomodori completed, take a 20 to 25-minute break.

Make sure not to dedicate the whole day to only one task, or the time will slip away and you will arrive at the evening without feeling fulfilled. Do your best to avoid any kind of distractions like calls, checking notifications or emails during those moments. If needed, you can create a pomodoro for those actions too.

Make Sure to Nourish Yourself

There’s a lot to be said about having a healthy meal, and in stressful times a plate of seasonal goodness can give your brain a real boost. There is an undeniable relationship between food and mental health, so spending some time cooking can be a great way to book in some time away from your screen and give your eyes and mind a rest in the meantime. Prioritise hearty, seasonal vegetables, dark leafy greens and energy-boosting wholegrains – try Lauren Lovatt’s Brain Boosting Bowl, for example. 

There is also research that suggests certain supplements can help to improvement performance; Ginkgo Biloba, for example, has been linked to the improvement of reaction time responses and brain stimulation, while vitamin B6 is thought to be a brain booster. While supplements might be able to support your system, make sure to do your research and talk with a doctor before buying anything. 

Spend Some Time Surrounded by Nature

There’s truth in the term ‘plant power;’ studies have actually shown that plants can increase positive energy, improve mood and reduce the risk of stress-related depression. They are also thought to help people focus better at work and carry out the tasks at hand with more precision. When we are surrounded by nature, our learning abilities improve, as does our capacity to absorb and retain information. If in doubt, heading over to a quiet natural spot to study might turn out to be a great idea.

Incorporate Meditation and Exercise

Even if it sounds like a cliché, meditating is essential in order to cope with stress. There are many forms of meditation, and each person can use a different one. While I don’t consider myself a great meditator by any means, it is true that within a week of doing this daily exercise I felt a reduction in my stress levels. I simply recorded my voice with a guided meditation from the book Eliminating Stress, Finding Inner Peaceby Brian Weiss and played it once a day in one of my “long-breaks”. It is relaxing, and making you get used to the sound of your recorded voice can give a boost to your self-confidence. Taking some time to exercise at home, in the gym or in open spaces will help you liberate endorphins, increasing the feeling of happiness and consequently decreasing the feelings of anxiety or stress. 

Get into Gardening

Green fingers are good for the mind, and gardening is one activity that is known to have many therapeutic effects. Spending some time cultivating plants allows you to decrease your stress level by channelling frustration and anxiety into something nice like taking care of plants and flowers, providing a much-needed boost of comfort and enjoyment.

Step Up Your Sleep

And last but not least, sleep well! Have a regular pattern of sleep and try to get at least eight hours of sleep per day during the exam period. The amount of sleep we need is highly dependent on individuals, but one thing everyone can do is make sure that the sleep they are getting is of the best quality possible. From turning your phone off well before bedtime to scheduling in some time for breathwork, Venetia Falconer offers plenty of tips

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