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It's Mental Health Awareness Week (Right in the Middle of Exams) - Staying Sane Under Academic Pressure

11/05/2015 12:22 BST | Updated 10/05/2016 10:59 BST

I was an A* student who was genuinely terrified of exams. "Oh boring; here we go. The clever kid who worries about getting, God - forbid, a B." But hear me out; I made myself seriously ill over exams. And when you have fainted, had panic attacks and had to take medication to get you through the May-June period you know that how academically - minded you are has nothing to do with your experiences of exam stress.

This week (11-16 May) is Mental Health Awareness Week and ironically it falls right in the middle of the British exam period.

I'm not entirely sure what causes some people to breeze through exams and others to fall to pieces. For me it was mainly driven by internal pressure and a complete lack of self - confidence. I simply had to do well; failure was not an option and I was completely terrified of being angry with myself on results day for not trying hard enough. On top of that, I seemingly lacked the ability to consider the evidence from my classwork and coursework which suggested I was very able and believed that during exam periods my whole brain turned into dust and I had to relearn everything.

This started at my Year 9 Sats (yes I really am that old) and interestingly only stopped before the most important exams of my life - my finals at university. I started revising months in advance, convinced I would otherwise fail because I was too stupid and thought I was a 'fraud for consistently getting good marks across the year. I would often stay up til 11.30pm at night, rewriting and rewriting the same notes and sometimes I would even draft essay answers to the same question two, three, four times a day to make sure I really 'got it'. I neglected my physical and mental health during exam periods and often ended up underweight, very depressed and anxious and actually needed to take Valium, Citalopram and beta - blockers to get me through my A - Levels.

But for some reason my finals at university were the least stressful exams I have ever done. By then, I had somehow learned how to look after myself during exam period. And if I can stay calm, so can you.

Here's my advice:

1. Build in rest time: Everyone needs some time off from revision. Your brain just gets bored and restless and like a wet sponge it will eventually stop soaking things up. So make a pact with yourself about what time you will put the books away and chill out for a while. Stick to it.

2. You need sleep: Staying up revising til 11.30pm is a big no - no because even if you're in bed by midnight you won't have a refreshing sleep because your brain will still be ticking over. Even worse is taking Pro - Plus to stay awake to cram a few more hours in before 2am. Get to bed at a decent time - whatever your body works best with. Read a novel or something interesting before bed - not your notes.

3. Exams do not negate the need for healthy eating: There are two types of 'eating reaction' to exams: the 'eat barely anything one' (my speciality) or the 'eat everything that is possibly bad for you all at once one' (an occasional exam pastime of mine). Neither are great. Both are extremely common. Try to stick as best you can to three meals a day. Your brain uses an awful lot of glucose during heavy revision periods so you might need some extra snacks; pitta bread and humus, bananas, yoghurts and cereal bars are all great energy - boosting snacks for long study sessions. Plus some chocolate, because y'know, Cadburys rules during exam season.

4. Remember when it's all going to be over: Exams don't go on forever (even though it feels like it) and even though we Brits are the most examined nation in the world, those people marking your paper couldn't cope if exams went on all year round. Circle the day of your final exam and plan to do some fun things a few days after (once you have your energy back). It will give you something to look forward to.

5. Try not to fall to pieces! Doing normal stuff like showering, going to the gym, tidying your bedroom can help keep you balanced during the exam season. I have seen so many people, myself included, give up on these things because they seem like a waste of time when there is so much revision to be done! But I learnt during my finals that these are the cornerstone tasks of a maintaining an ordinary routine during exams and actually helped me feel a lot better.

6. But if you do feel like falling apart that's ok: If you are really struggling with exams and feelings of depression and anxiety are taking over please make sure you get some support. Your GP is a great place to start and friends and family are surprisingly supportive over things like this. There are stress management techniques you can learn, different ways of revising which may work better for you and medication or counselling is always an option if you are really struggling. Keep your eye out at school or university for exam stress management workshops too - I found these really useful.

And most of all - good luck! You can do this.

My favourite resources on exam stress:

For students:

Young Minds have launched an excellent YoungMinds Vs School Stress campaign for exam season 2015 packed full of tips on revision and stress management.

http://www.youngmindsvs.org.uk/get_active/school_stress_campaign_pack

Mind have some great tips and advice on coping with academic pressure:

http://www.mind.org.uk/information-support/tips-for-everyday-living/student-life/coping-with-academic-work-and-exams#.VU_p8flViko

The Site offers excellent advice on all kinds of issues for 16 - 25 year olds. Their exam stress page with links to related topics is here

For parents and teachers:

Mental Health First Aid England runs a specialised 'Youth Mental Health First Aid' course for anybody who works with 11- 18 year olds. The course teaches participants to spot and deal with early signs of mental distress and guide a young person towards recovery.

For more information please see: http://mhfaengland.org/first-aid-courses/first-aid-youth/

NHS Choices has produced a page aimed at parents to help them support their child through exam stress:

http://www.nhs.uk/conditions/stress-anxiety-depression/pages/coping-with-exam-stress.aspx