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The pressure of exam season is generally accompanied by a high degree of stress. As students seek to demonstrate their acquired knowledge to teachers, they also face the anxiety that goes hand in hand with hours of exam preparation, a lack of sleep, and a high-pressure environment. Noticing the toll the pressure takes on their pupils, many teachers struggle to find a balanced way to convey the importance of exam results while supporting their students in maintaining a healthy attitude toward their educational outcomes. 

Thankfully, we now have a much deeper understanding of how this anxiety arises and many accessible tools to help address it. 

Mindfulness is one such example, and it can be a powerful ally in empowering students to deal with exam-related stress and anxiety. Through simple breathing and meditation techniques, practicing mindfulness can help students process difficult emotions, feel calmer, and face their exams with less stress and more confidence.

As we gear up for a demanding section of the academic calendar, we want to be here to support students in navigating their exams in a healthy and productive way. Let’s take a closer look at how keeping calm and balanced can lead to greater academic success. 

The effects of anxiety on the mind and body

According to the American Psychological Association, test anxiety is “tension and apprehensiveness associated with taking a test, frequently resulting in a decrease in test performance.”

Of course, getting the jitters or mild nerves is expected before an exam or any type of evaluation. Yet, test anxiety becomes so high for some students that symptoms of being physically ill or emotionally distraught arise. This anxiety does not necessarily disappear once the experience is over, either. As test taking is a recurring theme in education, test anxiety can have profound implications when left addressed over time. 

Unlike those who experience moderate stress, prolonged anxiety has many adverse side effects that impact a student’s health, academic performance, and quality of life. Some common symptoms of chronic anxiety include depressive thoughts, breathing problems, digestive issues, panic attacks, and extreme fatigue — not to mention the negative impact on exam performance. 

What is mindfulness? Unpacking the concept behind the buzz

So, what can we do to overcome anxiety and promote a healthier mental outlook

Mindfulness is one tactic getting a lot of attention, primarily because it is an accessible tool available to anyone willing to try it. We have spoken about the value of mindfulness, and over the past few years, it has become something of a buzzword in the context of self-care and wellness. However, it is worth looking behind the hype to understand what mindfulness entails and the simple way it can be applied. 

Essentially, mindfulness is the practice of focusing one’s attention on something that anchors them in the present moment, often using breath and meditation. It teaches the practitioner the ability to accept and sit with complicated feelings in the same way that we can with happy ones and provides needed perspective when situations feel overwhelming. 

This can be tremendously helpful in keeping a cool head when exam anxiety starts to set in or when the anticipation of the stress makes it difficult to study and adequately prepare. 

Some simple mindfulness strategies that can help

Perhaps the best part of a mindfulness practice is that it can be started at any time, and although it does require a degree of dedication, even a small time investment has been shown to yield powerful results

Unlock the benefits of breathing techniques 

We now understand that the act of gaining control and awareness over ones breathing deactivates fight or flight (our sympathetic nervous system) and activates our parasympathetic nervous system, otherwise known as ‘rest and digest’ mode. 

Learning to recognize the signs that a panic or anxiety attack is coming on and simply taking a few moments to close the eyes and focus on the breath going in through the nose and out again can be very powerful. 

The process is simple. Researchers from the Mayo Clinic suggest the following technique: 

Focus on your breathing. When you have negative thoughts, try to sit down, take a deep breath and close your eyes. Focus on your breath as it moves in and out of your body. Sitting and breathing for even just a minute can help.

Make time for meditation

Adopting a regular meditation practice also develops the strategies needed to fight stress when it intensifies during times of added stress—like before an exam. As we have highlighted in a list of resources to help students stay balanced while maintaining productivity, meditation is a brilliant tool for keeping anxiety at bay and getting into the right mindset before an exam. 

There are lots of free meditation resources available online, too. For instance, Headspace is a guided meditation app that aims to calm your mind and help you build a regular meditation practice. And it is just one example. There are a multitude of guided meditations freely available online. 

Take a deliberate approach to positive thinking

Another beneficial practice that can easily be incorporated into a mindfulness regime is actively noticing positive events that occur in a day. Often when stress is running high, people end up ruminating on the sources of their stress and thus making it worse. It also means the pleasant things that usually serve to make life seem brighter are overlooked. 

Something as straightforward as jotting down three positive events or moments from the day at bedtime can go a long way to promoting a positive outlook. These positive and calming memories also serve as a repository that can be returned to in times of stress or anxiety. 

Developing inner resilience for future success

Just as mindfulness can be a powerful asset for reducing exam stress, it can also help students navigate feelings of failure or inadequacy that arise when an exam, project, or application does not go according to plan. 

Cultivating this inner resilience at a young age is a huge advantage that will continue to pay dividends as one moves on to university and into the workforce. Through mindfulness, one can step back and take a more detached approach when choosing how to respond to events, be they negative or positive. 

Ultimately, a mindfulness practice is a reminder that all thoughts and feelings are temporary. Whether they arise from an argument with a friend or a failed exam, one’s emotions at any given moment do not define them. Mindfulness illustrates that there is always a road forward. 

Many IB schools offer excellent in-school mental health resources, not to mention equipping students with the skills they need to articulate their own mental health struggles and support their peers. That said, every individual is unique and has different requirements. 

If you are experiencing mental struggles, you should obtain the relevant professional or specialist advice before taking, or refraining from, any action. If you have questions about the symptoms or feelings you are experiencing, you should consult your doctor or another professional healthcare provider without delay.