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Is there such a thing as good exam stress?


If you are in fourth or fifth year at high school, you may be experiencing exams for the first time. You will have had tests – and plenty of them – in the past, but this is different. Instead of sitting in a classroom surrounded by familiar faces, you are going to be in a large hall with rows and rows of strangers trying to remember a year’s worth of teaching.

Sitting Highers or Advanced Highers? Then the exam hall is more familiar, but the pressure might be even worse. Someone (a parent, a teacher, maybe you) has somehow left the impression that this is your only shot at success and if you mess it up the rest of your life will be a wash-out.

Related article: Do exam results define your future?

good exam stress - picture of rows and rows of empty exam chairs

The difference between good exam stress and bad exam stress


Exam stress is completely normal. Small amounts of stress, short-term, can be good.

Stress can stimulate your immune system and it is there to help you deal with difficult situations by making your brain sharper and giving your body more energy.  If you’re experiencing too much stress, however, it can have the opposite effect.

good exam stress - picture of a young woman chewing on her pencil with stress

Physically you might be getting headaches or feeling sick; be exhausted and unable to sleep; lose your appetite or want to eat all the time. Emotionally stress can leave you feeling worried and fearful, not wanting to go to school or to meet friends, or you might feel confused and have difficulty concentrating.

Almost everyone finds exams stressful. The trick is to find ways of harnessing healthy stress levels to help you meet the challenge and avoid feeling overwhelmed.

How to turn bad exam stress into good exam stress


There’s a lot of good advice on managing general anxiety but, more specifically, for exam stress, the key is preparation – the earlier you start the more in control (and less stressed) you’ll feel.

  • Start by working out what you have to learn:
    • Tell your teacher you want to make a revision plan and, if you haven’t seen these already, ask to see past exam papers – they’ll give you an idea of potential questions and how they are presented and worded.
  • Then work out how you learn best:
    • Everyone has a learning style. Think about what works for you – revising with or without music; working for long periods or in short bursts; revising alone or working with a friend or friends, or a combination of these. If you’re going to work with others, make sure you know what you’re going to be doing beforehand. Agree if it is discussions, quizzing each other or practising completing past exam papers.
  • Make a plan:

How to manage stress


It is unrealistic to expect to avoid stress altogether during exam time but there are ways of dealing with it. We’ve listed some helpful hints below but for a more detailed guide to managing exam stress, read our article: Exam stress tips for students.

  • Talk: Whether it’s something specific in your schoolwork that you don’t understand or you are just generally feeling stressed out, find a teacher/adult or friend that you trust. Everyone feels stressed, confused or overwhelmed sometimes and talking can stop it building up in your head.
  • Mindset: If you can start with a positive mind-set it helps – if this doesn’t seem like you, here are some great practical tips on boosting your confidence and changing the way you think.
  • Self-care: Take breaks – and factor these into your revision timetable. Start with factoring a 10-minute break in every 30-40 minutes. Reward yourself: pick a film you like to watch at the end of each revision session or catch-up with Snapchat and Instagram. Practice relaxation or mindfulness and use this when stress starts to build or do 10 minutes a day.

Supporting young people in Scotland

The Spark provides a range of counselling and support services for children and young people.

Find out more on the Children and Young People section of our website, including information on youth counselling and our work in Scotland’s secondary schools.

Useful links

Childline has a useful leaflet on looking after yourself during exams as well as lots of good advice on dealing with all kinds of stresses and problems,  and if you’re under 19 you can contact them confidentially and for free by phone or online.

The NHS has tips for students and their parents or carers on ‘surviving exams’.

BBC Bitesize has lots of practical advice and resources to help you prepare for exams.

Children And Young People, Education, Exam Stress, Mental Health, Stress, The Spark, Tips, Young People