Friday, 22 Sep 2023

A letter to students: Seven ways to hack exam stress and get ROCKING!

The best procrastination buster is to break the task into brick by brick or what I call the ‘15-minute rule’. It will cut down the inertia and possibly make it easier for you to come back to it next time.

Dear Students,

I am sure you have heard this word “stress” been thrown around a lot lately as you prepare for your exams. Possibly you have even attended a workshop in your school or your parents and teachers have been on your case with, ‘You need to learn how to manage stress better.’ So I get your eye roll as you see yet another column on it. Don’t worry, I am not going to churn out some heavy-duty theories. All you need to understand is that we feel stressed out when we feel overwhelmed and out of control. And there are simple strategies that are really effective in getting you to de-stress and get you ROCKING (acronym that you can remember without straining your already overloaded memory).

Regulate yourself

Contrary to common understanding, stress is not all bad. There is solid research on the fact that some level of stress is actually good for us, as it helps us build muscles of courage (think commando training). It is like stress inoculation or a stress vaccine which can give us an extra boost of grit to go through tough phases of life. It is only when the stress is extreme or chronic that it can lead to exhaustion, feeling drained out and a constant state of anxiety. So keep your eye on the mood thermostat — too much chill or too hot is not going to work.

Own it

You will have a lot of people telling you how you should study but do what works for you. We all have different learning styles and we have to be as creative as possible to find our sweet spot of learning. If you are a visual learner, then you might like writing notes, highlighting, making mind maps on flip charts, important information on whiteboards, watching videos. The auditory learners like to read aloud, teach others, brainstorm different concepts, use drama, role plays and making silly songs to help you get a deeper understanding of your subjects. The kinaesthetic learners might like to walk around, play with a ball or do anything as long as there is some level of movement. You could try out cool mnemonics that can make memorising fun and easy. For example, suppose you have to learn five points in history, think of five characters from your favourite books or movies and imagine them going on stage with placards and reading aloud the text. Remember, it is not the number of hours of cramming but creative studying that is most effective.

Change the channel

When our brain feels out of control, it starts overthinking:

I am going to mess up!

My parents will be so disappointed!

What will people say!

On and on it goes like a radio, at times silent, at times softly murmuring and many times broadcasting in a loud voice. It is very difficult to study when the radio of negativity is blaring. I have a simple yet effective trick that can you can use to lower the volume or mute it – ABC.

  • Alert: Be aware of this radio of negativity and as soon as it starts, just tell yourself, “Ah! I see the radio of negativity is on again.” Just by labelling it, you will see it lose its control on you.
  • Breathe out: Imagine you have a feather on your palm, in front of your face. Now breathe out strongly to blow it away. Then, take a deep breath in. Do it a few times till you feel your body and mind relaxing.
  • Change the Channel: Change the channel of the radio of worrying by getting up (movement is important) and doing something to distract yourself. Go for a short walk, make a snack for yourself or do a quick dance to your favourite number.

Keep the PQ high

Now you might have heard of IQ (intelligence quotient) but what is PQ, you might ask. Well, it stands for playfulness quotient (I have made this one up), which is all about how funny, crazy, whacky you can get and I believe it is actually much more important than IQ. All Harry Potter fans know that Riddikulus is a spell used against Boggarts. A Boggart is a shape-shifter that feeds on fear and it is defeated by humour and laughter. To get rid of it, the caster has to think of something outrageously funny and ridiculous. We have to concoct our own Riddikulus spell to defeat our Boggarts. So get your PQ spells out and keep your stress Boggart in check.

Immersive visualisation

You would have heard of the swimmer Michael Phelps, who holds the all-time record for maximum gold medals in the Olympics. What you may not know about him is that before every competition, he immerses himself in visualising the swim and winning it. A lot of research has helped us understand that visualisation is very powerful in priming and preparing our brain. Every morning when you get up, try visualising how you would like your day to go. If you get a little panicky on the day of the exam, just visualise how you stay calm and confident on that day. The trick is to make it as detailed as possible so that the brain can hold on to the vision and then it will go all out to make sure that you stay on track.

No to distractions and procrastination

This is a tough one as we are surrounded by distractions around us, the biggest one of course being our gadgets and social media. Studying can seem so boring compared to chatting to friends on WhatsApp, checking the latest feeds on Instagram or bingeing on Netflix. I use ‘distance and delay’ as a way to keep myself on track and it works for me most of the time. For example, while writing this column, I put my laptop on WiFi off mode and kept my phone in another room. Every time I felt that fidgety need to be online, I told myself, ‘after 30 minutes’ and, apart from a quick peep at my phone a couple of times (they are so addictive), I managed to stay on track. It was really tough but that was the only way I could have managed to get any writing done. The best procrastination buster is to break the task to into brick by brick or what I call ‘15-minute rule’. Suppose you have been procrastinating studying physics, then maybe the first brick would be just telling yourself that you would study it for 15 minutes and then move to another subject. It will cut down the inertia and possibly make it easier for you to come back to it next time.


At times, constant churning out of the radio of negativity can be really nerve-racking so you need a quick grounding exercise to get you out of your head and into your body. You start with a deep breath and then label five things in the room that you can see (flowers, desk, lamp), four things that you can touch (go ahead and touch them), three things that you can hear, two things you can smell and one thing that you can taste. For grounding, I would also suggest short 5 to 3 minutes of guided meditation on apps such as Calm or Headspace.

However, do remember it is the effort that counts; not the marks. Adults might like to tell you otherwise but it is their radio of stress speaking. So do not take it personally. All the best for your exams and make sure you keep ROCKING!


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