Yoga to Calm Exam Nerves

exam nerves, desk with stationaryIt is this time of year again when exams like GCSEs, A-levels and university examinations are approaching fast and exam nerves are building up. Exam nerves can become an unnecessary burden when revising  or a distraction on exam day. Exam nerves often seem overwhelming and difficult to control. Read here how yoga and other simple actions can help you stay positive, focused and in control.

What are exam nerves?

Exam nerves are a natural reaction to pressure and stress. We might experience stress symptoms such as:

  • not sleeping well
  • fatigue
  • forgetfulness
  • feeling irritable
  • feeling anxious and worried
  • headaches, eczema, stomach cramps
  • increased heart rate
  • feeling restless

Exam nerves are not necessarily bad: When managed well, exam nerves  can help us stay on our toes, increase motivation, and boost energy levels.

Our thoughts matter

Our thoughts are powerful. Thoughts can trigger all sorts of emotions: anger, anxiety, confidence, depression, excitement, happiness, sadness. Some of our thoughts are helpful, enabling us to feel good, perform well, move forward. Other thoughts are unhelpful, disabling, they cause us distress, make us feel stuck, impede our progress. Some thoughts seem to come from nowhere, some can easily be traced to things we have heard, or read, or been told. As Dr Seuss put it: “Oh the thinks we can think!

Luckily we have influence over our thoughts. Once we become aware of what goes through our mind we can analyse whether our thoughts and interpretations are holding us back or promoting our well-being. This self-knowledge is part of the Eight Limbs of Yoga, called Swadhyaya. Self-awareness in turn allows us to cultivate helpful thoughts and drop the unhelpful ones.  We can think our way out of difficult emotions and situations. Inner strength comes from nurturing the right kind of thoughts.

How to overcome exam stress

Apart from using the power of our thoughts to combat exam stress, we can use the power of our body, too: Exercise is the best stress buster. Therefore, when revising, we benefit from taking regular breaks to stretch, do a few star jumps or sit-ups, or go for a walk. The current NHS physical activity recommendations for 18 years plus are:

  • at least 150 minutes of moderate aerobic activity (cycling, walking, running, football, tennis, squash) every week, and
  • strength exercises on two or more days a week that work all the major muscles (legs, hips, back, abdomen, chest, shoulders, arms) .

Other habits, which help us stay healthy and manage stress include:

  • Eating regularly and healthily. Start the day with a wholesome breakfast. For snacks, go for fresh fruit and vegetables, nuts, seeds, toast or yoghurt, rather than chocolate and crisps.
  • Drinking at least 1 l of water each day. Avoiding coffee, tea, coke, sugary drinks and alcohol.
  • Daily relaxation: Do something enjoyable (preferably away from the computer, ipad and mobile). Stretch. Go to a yoga class. Practice a breathing or relaxation technique. Snooze. Or just sit back and relax, watch a funny film, read a book, listen to music, have a hot bath.
  • Going to bed before midnight.
  • Keeping in touch with friends and relatives, but don’t let them become a distraction.
  • Avoiding people who make you feel stressed or bad. Avoiding exam discussions on social media.
Yoga to release exam stress

When I started teaching yoga, I was surprised that a group of GCSE and A-level students joined my classes. I even had students enquiring about my yoga day reatreats. Yoga makes a great home practice and generally has a calming and balancing effect.

If you have never done yoga before, my blog on yoga basics for beginners might help you overcome any initial shyness to join a class. There is a great variety of yoga classes available almost anywhere, from free YouTube classes to paid online yoga studios, community yoga classes and yoga at the local gym, from dynamic power yoga to gentle and restorative yoga.

Prepare prepare prepare

Undeniably, knowing that we have prepared well for our exam takes away a lot of our anxieties. I worked out these revision tips with students I have seen in my previous career as a stress counselor:

  • Make a revision time table. Be realistic and include time for breaks, meals, relaxation, and exercise. Stick to the plan.
  • Have a well-organized and clutter-free study space. Do you have all the equipment? Books? Enough light? A comfortable chair? Get rid of distractions (computer games!).
  • Know yourself: Some people work better in silence, others with background music. Some alone, others in a study group. Some at home, others in the library. Some people like to use spider diagrams, others make lists. Whatever works for you is good.
  • Particularly effective revision techniques include: Writing out your notes; practicing old exam papers and explaining a topic to someone else.
  • To release tension, get up from your chair every hour and stretch.
  • When things go wrong, don’t beat yourself up or throw in the towel, simply get back to your plan. Have faith in yourself. It is normal to feel overwhelmed. Stop negative self-talk in its track and replace with “I can do this, I’ll be fine”. Smile.
  • Plan your exam day: Pack everything you need the night before. Put out your clothes, watch, money, keys, tissues, water, pencil case. Know exactly where to go. Work out how long it takes to get there and add extra time. Arrive 15 minutes early at the exam room.

Leaves me only to say: Good luck.

“Promise me to always remember that you are braver than you believe, stronger than you feel and smarter than you think.”
Christopher Robin to Winnie the Pooh