Sarah’s story: Managing exam stress

Sarah’s story: Managing exam stress

Friday, 23 July 2021

Sarah* contacted Jigsaw about four months before her Leaving Cert exams. She had been feeling anxious for a while, but in the last few weeks she’d had two panic attacks.

Her main worry was that she’d get a panic attack in an exam. “I have to get rid of this anxiety now”, she told the clinician, “before my mocks”.

Identifying triggers for stress

Sarah’s clinician wanted to know more about the anxiety and panic attacks. When did they happen? Was there a trigger? They discovered Sarah’s panic attacks happened just after Sarah’s teachers mentioned study plans or expected study hours in class.

When her history teacher said, “you all should have covered this section in your revision plan already”, Sarah felt her heart beating fast and chest getting tight. She rushed to the toilet because she felt she couldn’t breathe. She barely remembers the rest of the day.

The Jigsaw clinician helped Sarah realise her panic attacks were connected to worries she was too far behind on study. She thought she’d never be able to catch up.

This connected to deeper worries of failing her exams, being unable to get into college or ever getting a job. That would lead her to be a “complete failure” in life. The clinician asked her to step back, look at the facts and be realistic about what could happen. They discussed strategies for managing exam stress.

Together they looked at Sarah’s schedule. The clinician asked Sarah to draw out her weekly calendar. She coloured in the hours she spent studying as blue, with different colours for other activities. When she was finished, Sarah’s waking hours were almost completely blue.

With these activities gone from her week, Sarah had no mental break from thinking about the Leaving Cert.

Study schedule

She was waking at 6am to study before she left for school. Getting home at 5pm, she had dinner and studied again from 6pm until 10pm or 11pm.

Weekends were similar, going to grinds in the morning and studying in the afternoon and evening. To fit this study plan into her life, Sarah had stopped going to basketball on Tuesday and Thursday evenings, and stopped walking her dog.

With these activities gone from her week, Sarah had no mental break from thinking about the Leaving Cert. Her school didn’t do PE in sixth year so she was getting almost no exercise. She was getting two hours less sleep a night than she used to.

Using the idea of the Leaving Cert as a marathon, the clinician asked Sarah if it was the best way for exam preparation. She agreed it wasn’t productive. The schedule showed she wasn’t getting enough sleep, rest or downtime.

Sarah also showed the schedule to her mother, who had been pressuring her to study. Her mother was shocked at the hours she was putting in. She helped Sarah plan a more realistic study schedule for herself.

Adjusting expectations

Sarah put back in the things she enjoyed, like walking her dog, basketball, and cinema visits once a month. As she added more sleep and downtime into her schedule, her anxiety decreased. Her clinician asked her to change her thinking from being the best, to doing her best.

Sarah set more realistic targets for her exam results. She decided to apply for some PLC courses in case she didn’t get the university course she wanted. She distanced herself from a group in school who talked about nothing but getting 600 points.

When a teacher mentioned study plans, or a classmate talked about studying until midnight, Sarah repeated the phrase, ‘I’m doing my best’ to herself.

Two months before her exams, she was a lot more relaxed and realistic about the exams. She said no matter what her result, she would still have options and avenues open to her. She didn’t have another panic attack.

Read more about managing anxiety.

*Names have been changed

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