Exam Stress

As exam time approaches, many students begin to feel anxious and panicky. Even the most confident of students may begin to doubt their abilities and fear that they simply will not be ready in time. This anxiety is usually experienced as a persistent feeling of butterflies in the stomach, excessive sweating, a galloping heartbeat, shaky legs and an inablility to think clearly.

It sounds all bad? Not at all! These common reactions to exam situations are all caused by the natural chemicals and hormones released by the body during times of mental or physical stress. It is the production of these stress hormones that allows the body and mind to 'step it up a gear'. If you can harness the extra energy and learn to channel it to your advantage through positive thinking or other techniques, you will optimise both your stamina and your performance, be that physically or mentally.

It does, of course, help, in the struggle to think positively, if you are feeling well physically. Unfortunately, students taking college, leaving- and junior-certificate exams will find themselves prone to a plethora of minor ailments. Headaches, stomach upsets, diarrhoea and/or constipation are frequently encountered during exam-time. Those prone to certain conditions such as eczema, asthma, psoriasis and acne may find that a flare-up of their symptoms has been triggered by the stress.

Hopefully some of the tips offered below will help students minimise some of the symptoms that can be associated with minor ailments caused by exam stress.  

1. Headaches – Drink plenty of water to avoid dehydration. Students who wear glasses or contact lenses should make sure to do so when they are studying so as not to strain their eyes. Study in a well-ventilated room and take regular breaks.

2. Dehydration – Drink lots of water; avoid too much coffee or stimulant drinks, such as Redbull, as they can cause dehydration. Typically the weather is good during exam time. If studying outdoors, make sure to wear high factor suncream; wear a hat and cover up in the sun. Too much sun can result in lack of concentration.

3. Stomach upsets – Avoid spicy foods or foods that you know don’t agree with you. Eat small amounts regularly. A glass of milk or peppermint tea can be good for stomach upsets. If the problem persists, contact your pharmacist who will be able to offer you a simple remedy.

4. Diarrhoea or constipation – Stress can cause disruption to a student’s digestive system and this can result in diarrhoea or constipation. If a student is constipated, they should drink plenty of water and eat fruit and high fibre foods. For diarrhoea, make sure to drink plenty of water and keep hydrated. There are products, available from pharmacists, which help to replenish vital salts, vitamins and minerals.

5. Asthma – Be extra vigilant in using inhalers correctly. Your pharmacist can advice you on improving your inhaler technique. Preventative inhalers should be used regularly. Make sure that you have an ample supply of inhalers and carry a reliever inhaler with you at all times so it can be used during the exam if required.

6. Eczema – Stress can cause eczema to flare up. Keep your skin well-moisturised with the barrier cream given to you by your pharmacist. Wear loose-fitting clothes that won’t aggravate the condition and cause the skin to itch or flare-up further.

7. Cold Sores – If you feel you may be getting a cold sore, apply preventative cream such as Zovirax as soon as possible and re-apply the cream regularly. Wash your hands thoroughly after applying the cream to avoid the cold sores spreading. Wear a lip balm which contains sun factor to protect your lips when outdoors.

8. Insomnia - Avoid caffeinated products such as Coke, Redbull and tea and coffee. Take some light exercise or other activity such as having a bath or shower in order to relax before bedtime. Don’t study in bed as the brain will become over stimulated. Set aside a period for relaxing during the study schedule.

9. Muscular and Joint Discomfort – Posture is very important in avoiding muscular discomfort. It is important to have a chair that will provide good back support and that your desk is laid out well. Avoid crossing legs or slouching over a desk. Take frequent breaks when studying, walk around for a few moments or perform some light stretches. For students in severe discomfort, lumbar supports, wrist rests and heated neck-wraps can be helpful.

10. Hay Fever - Those who suffer from hay fever should take steps to ensure that the condition does not flare up during their exams. Simple steps, such as keeping doors and windows closed in mid-morning and early evening when pollen levels peak, and avoiding lying on the grass, can help. Apply a little Vaseline inside the nose to help reduce symptoms. If you need to take anti-histamines, make sure that you take ones which don’t cause drowsiness. Ask your pharmacist for advice.

11. Nutrition - Make sure you eat regular, well-balanced, healthy meals. If you feel it is necessary during this stressful time, you can supplement your diet with a multi-vitamin to prevent you getting run-down. In particular, your pharmacist may suggest dosing up on B-Vitamins and on Vitamin C, as these water-soluble vitamins are depleted rapidly in times of stress. B-group Vitamins are required by the body for a healthy nervous system, helping your body handle extra stress. Vitamin C is necessary for optimum immune-system function.

12. Rescue Remedy - In spite of all the preparation in the world, you may still be prone to last-minute jitters before going into the exam-hall - that scary, mind-emptying effect. 'Rescue Remedy' is a formulation of Bach flower essences that works with your body to help restore a positive mood, confidence and calmness. It is free from adverse effects, and, above all, does not cause drowsiness. Just knowing it's there to fall back on can be enough to bring about reassurance.

Above are noted just some of the ways in which exam stress can manifest itself in the body. Students and their parents are welcome to talk to their pharmacist if they have any concerns or want to take precautions in advance of the exams starting. The best advice is to be prepared and to recognise the triggers associated with minor ailments; that way you can treat the ailment as soon as it presents and minimise its impact. Advice is free at the pharmacy, and so a trip to the pharmacy should fit every student budget! The resource is expert, and you can trust your pharmacist won't recommend any products that might leave you exposed to undesirable side-effects or drowsiness.