20/05/2013 10:32 BST | Updated 20/07/2013 06:12 BST

A Healthy Sleep Pattern - An Important Stress-Busting Element This Exam Season


With exam season well and truly upon us, GCSE and A-level students everywhere will be feeling some level of anxiety to perform to their best. The pressure of revision and impending tests can not only affect their waking moments but impact on sleep too. Lack of sleep can then have a detrimental effect on the brain, which can lead to lack of concentration when revising and in the exam hall - and on goes the cycle! It can be a worry for students' parents as they try to encourage their children to revise and do the best they can, whilst also wanting to ensure they're getting enough rest and are prepared for the exams ahead.

A little stress can actually aid performance, whilst too much will cause a deterioration. This 'Goldilocks Theory' of stress involves searching for the optimal level of performance while avoiding too little and too much stress. This is referred as the 'Inverted U' by psychologists: too little stress and there will not be maximum focus and concentration whereas too much will cause a rapid decline in native cognitive abilities. The key to exam success then is finding strategies to remain on the front part of the 'Inverted U', where abilities increase as stress increases. Obviously getting enough rest is one of the most important strategies but difficult to do when anxiety levels are high.

Stressed-out students should try to ensure they get their recommended eight hours sleep, but this can be easier said than done. The temptation to cram as much revision in as they possibly can means they might choose to revise just before bedtime, or in bed. This will disrupt the ability to wind down and sleep and affect the quality of sleep itself, as the brain is too stimulated to rest. Ideally, bed should be a sanctuary, associated with sleeping, not all night revising (or browsing the internet or Facebook!).

There are plenty of things parents can encourage their kids to do to help the situation. The bedroom, for instance, should be made as dark as possible - the brain needs to produce melatonin for effective sleep, which can be hampered by the presence of natural light. It's probably a good idea to encourage them to switch off any smartphones, and TVs, which can be a distraction to revising and to sleep.

They should also avoid or limit intake of caffeine or stimulant drinks. Students might be tempted to stimulate longer revision periods with caffeinated energy drinks, but these will only serve to interrupt the normal flow of sleep stages. Moreover, starving all day whilst revising then having a big meal later on will also hinder sleep. Parents can encourage their offspring to avoid protein three hours before bedtime, opting instead for carb snacks or meals, such as bread or cereal in the evening. The temperature of the bedroom is also key; a cool temperature of 21°C is ideal.

It's a stressful time for all, and parents would also do well to heed this advice to get a good night's rest too, as their anxiety about their child's performance can not only affect their sleeping pattern, but also stimulate heightened anxiety in the child.

A good night's sleep can truly be a great potion, making anyone feel better about themselves and will greatly affect well-being. For students, it will not only help revision and exam performance but make them feel much better about the challenges that face them.

Good luck!