It’s a fact. There’s no getting around it. Exams suck. Even if you’re lucky enough to be amongst the few people who can handle exams without stressing out, EVERYONE gets anxious and nervous about them.

‘Sometimes the best thing you can do is not think, not wonder, not imagine, not obsess. Just breathe, and have faith that everything will work out for the best.’

It’s completely normal to have feelings of anxiety occasionally – especially about exams. In fact a little anxiety can actually help you be more focused. But if you become overwhelmed by anxiety it can prevent you from doing your best, and you may end up cheating yourself out of the results you deserve.

So let’s try to understand what happens to our minds and bodies when we feel anxious. You’ll probably experience some physical symptoms, such as:

  • a churning feeling in your stomach

  • feeling light-headed or dizzy

  • feeling restless or unable to sit still

  • having headaches, or other aches and pains

  • breathing more quickly

  • having an irregular/increased heartbeat

  • sweating or feeling too hot

  • having problems sleeping

You may also notice some effects on your mind and thoughts:

  • feeling tense or unable to relax

  • having a sense of dread, or fearing the worst

  • feeling self-conscious

  • over-thinking everything

  • feeling disconnected from your mind or body, as though you’re watching someone else

  • wanting lots of reassurance from other people

But you CAN make the exam experience a lot less stressful by adopting a few simple coping strategies:

GET ENOUGH SLEEP - The powers of a good night’s rest cannot be overestimated. I bet you wouldn’t leave your phone uncharged overnight, so don’t do it to your body! The ideal minimum is 8-10 hrs of good quality sleep – turning off all screens an hour before you want to sleep. Lavender is a great essential oil and a few drops on your pillow can really help you switch off.

EAT WELL - Junk food and sugary foods/drinks might taste great, but they really don’t do your brain or body any favours. Try to focus on ‘healthy fuel’ during the exam period – carbohydrates, proteins, veg & fruit. They can be really tasty you know!...And drink plenty of water to keep you hydrated and stop you feeling tired.

USE BREATHING EXERCISES - This is a great way of calming down and relaxing your body and brain. There are all sorts of breathing techniques you can use, but a really easy one is ‘Finger Breathing’: Start with the thumb on the index finger. As you inhale, slide the thumb towards the tip of your index finger, then as you exhale, slide the thumb back down the index finger. With the next breath, move on to the middle finger, and so on. By the time you’ve reached the fifth finger, you will be feeling considerably calmer – and you’re unlikely to have been thinking about anything else whilst you’re concentrating on doing the exercise! It is a perfect thing to do just before you go into an exam.

TALK – A problem shared is a problem halved. However anxious you might feel, talking about your worries really does help. Confide in your family and friends and let them know how you’re feeling. If there are things they can do to help you feel less anxious and more secure, ask them to do them! The people who care about you want you to have the best chance, and it will really help them to know how they can help.

MOST IMPORTANT OF ALL – DON’T WORRY! Worrying won’t answer your exam papers and it certainly won’t make anything easier or better. Whenever the worry sets in, do the breathing exercises or use distraction techniques, such as listening to music, having some fresh air, or doing some exercise.

“Listen to the ‘mustn’ts’ child, listen to the ‘don’ts’. Listen to the ‘shouldn’ts’, the ‘impossible’, the ‘wont’s’. Listen to the ‘never haves’, then listen close to me - Anything can happen, child, ANYTHING can be” – Shel Silverstein




Many of you will recognise these words as being from the theme tune to the TV series, M*A*S*H.

“...suicide is painless

It brings on many changes
and I can take or leave it if I please...’

But of course nobody who is reading this can validate or disprove the statement that ‘suicide is painless’. In my experience of talking to people who have come close to it, the tragic probability is that most people who take their own lives don’t actually want to die. They just want the pain to go away.

“The sword of time will pierce our skins
It doesn't hurt when it begins
But as it works its way on in

The pain grows stronger...watch it grin.”

The latest available key facts, as produced by Samaritans (who are the only organisation to collate suicide statistics for the UK and the Republic of Ireland), are:

  • In 2017 there were 6,213 suicides in the UK and Republic of Ireland

  • In the UK, men are three times as likely to take their own lives than women

  • In the Republic of Ireland, men are four times more likely to take their own lives than women.

  • In the UK, the highest suicide rate was for men aged 45-49.

  • In the Republic of Ireland, the highest suicide rate was for men aged 25–34 (with an almost identical rate for men aged 45–54).

  • In Northern Ireland, suicide rates for both men and women are higher than other UK nations – however rates are not necessarily directly comparable.

Have you ever thought about ending your life?

I have. And I suspect that a great many people reading this will have, at some time – even if just for a fleeting moment - considered the possibility. And it’s absolutely OK to have felt like that – it doesn’t make you a lesser person, or ‘damaged goods’. Life can be incredibly hard. The good news is that you are still here. Perhaps you found support in your family or friends, or you were brave enough to seek professional help.

Unfortunately there are an awful lot of people who don’t have that support, or courage, and who feel totally alone and desperate.

What can we do about it?

I think we can all be much more aware. If we open our eyes and our ears (and take time to look up from our smart phones and tablets), we might just be able to pick up on something that doesn’t feel right. Check-in with someone if you think they are struggling, even if it’s just by sending them a simple text message. Let them know you’re there for them. And remember that people who talk openly about suicide are not seeking attention – they are crying out for help to relieve their pain.

Mental health can be as debilitating as a physical ailment, even more so. If someone had a broken leg, you wouldn’t expect them to limp along and just wait until it healed itself. Often that’s the attitude towards mental health issues. If you, or anyone you know, is in mental distress, please don’t suffer in silence. A problem shared, IS a problem halved. Talking to someone about your problems doesn’t necessarily fix everything, but it certainly makes them seem a lot more bearable and helps to take the pain away. We often can’t change the challenging facts in our lives, but we do have the option to change our perspective about our situation – and we can encourage others to do the same.

Imagine what a difference we could make

if we all improved our awareness - not only of the people in our own lives, but of people beyond that circle. Perhaps noticing someone standing alone on a station platform, but repeatedly not getting on a train. Or someone leaning over the railings of a bridge. Or someone standing on a beach looking out to sea.

Kindness can have a dramatic ripple effect and, in some cases, it can literally be life-changing. The great Buddhist monk, Thich Nhat Hanh, spoke about the need for empathy and understanding:

“When you plant lettuce, if it does not grow well, you don't blame the lettuce. You look for reasons it is not doing well. It may need fertilizer, or more water, or less sun. You never blame the lettuce. Yet if we have problems with our friends or family, we blame the other person. But if we know how to take care of them, they will grow well, like the lettuce. Blaming has no positive effect at all, nor does trying to persuade using reason and argument. That is my experience. No blame, no reasoning, no argument, just understanding. If you understand, and you show that you understand, you can love, and the situation will change.”

So perhaps we all need to be more conscientious ‘Gardeners’, for our sake and for the sake of others, in our lives and beyond. Nurture your personal ‘allotment’ and watch as it flourishes and encourages the neighbouring ‘allotments’ to do the same.

The grass isn’t always greener on the other side. It is only greener where we choose to water it.

If you are struggling and need support please contact me


Samaritans 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. Call 116 123 (free from any phone), or email jo@samaritans.org.