6 Ways to Take Care of Yourself During Exam Time

By Heidi Borst

If you feel burned out from studying for your exams, you’re not alone. It’s normal to want to do well on your exams, but the pressure to perform can cause a lot of stress—especially when you have multiple exams to prepare for at once. 

Sometimes finding the time to study can mean sacrificing “me time” and even your basic needs. Putting 100 percent of yourself into exam preparation may seem necessary, but that approach can backfire. To give yourself the best chance of success, it’s important to make sure you care for your mental health and overall well-being.

Here are six ways to take care of yourself during exam time.

Get Enough Sleep

Maybe you plan to stay up all night before your exam to cram, or maybe you’ve studied into the early morning hours all week. It may seem like sacrificing sleep is the only way you’ll be prepared when exam day arrives, but research shows that skimping on sleep can cause your productivity to decline and hurt your performance.

On the flip side, getting the recommended amount of sleep (eight to 10 hours for 13- to 17-year-olds and seven to nine hours for 18- to 25-year-olds) every night has many benefits. Science shows that sleep helps regenerate the brain, allowing it to function at its best. Having a fresh, well-rested mind is a big asset when it comes to your exam performance. 

Nourish Yourself With Healthy Food

You hear all the time that eating healthy and staying hydrated is important for your physical health, but it also keeps your mind in peak shape.

It’s common to reach for a bag of chips or a candy bar when exam stress is piling up. Studies show that the brain craves high-sugar, high-fat foods during times of high stress. But what you eat affects your ability to think and get work done. 

Foods high in sugar and saturated fats are OK to indulge in once in a while, but eating them too often can make it harder for your brain to work the way it should. That’s not the best way to prepare for your exams. 

When you fuel your body (and brain!) with high-quality foods, you’ll be able to concentrate and focus better. To keep your brain powered up, try pairing an apple with some nut butter or a handful of nuts, whole-grain crackers with cheese, or veggies with avocado dip.

Drink Lots of Water

What you drink matters too. You may rely on energy drinks or coffee during exam prep. Caffeine is OK in moderation—it actually increases alertness—but too much can lead to unwanted side effects such as headaches, nausea, jitteriness, dehydration, and insomnia. 

Your best bet? Avoiding sugary drinks and loading up on water. If coffee is part of your studying routine, try to drink two cups of water for every cup of coffee. Coffee is a diuretic, meaning it dehydrates you. What’s more, the brain is made of 75 percent water, and research shows that staying hydrated improves cognitive performance. A hydrated brain is better at doing its job.

Take Regular Brain Breaks

It may feel like staying glued to your textbook is the best way to raise your exam scores, but you’ll actually do better when you give your brain breaks to destress and refocus.

If you have only five minutes:

  • Put away your study materials and close your eyes.
  • Breathe in slowly for six counts and out for three counts until you feel calmer. 
  • Or simply go outside for a quick change of scenery.

If you have 15 to 20 minutes:

  • Go for a walk.
  • Take a shower.
  • Enjoy a brain-boosting snack.
  • Take a power nap (10 to 20 minutes is ideal).
  • Stretch.
  • Listen to a relaxing or upbeat playlist. 

It may be tempting to scroll your feed, but research shows that scanning social media when you’re stressed can actually intensify stress.

Check out these guided activities to find a study break you enjoy

Reach Out for Support

If you feel overwhelmed, know that you are never alone. Friends can be a great source of support during exam time. Do you have one who always makes you laugh, or someone who listens when you need to vent? Reach out to them. Meeting for a quick cup of coffee or taking a quick walk together is a great way to reset before getting back into studying mode.

If your stress is academic related—say you’re struggling with a specific physics concept or calculus problem—take advantage of your teacher’s offers to help, professor’s or teaching assistant’s office hours, and any tutoring support your school offers. All of these supports are there to help, and they want you to succeed.

The bottom line? Whether you turn to a parent, friend, caregiver, teacher, or counselor, you can find the support to help you cope.

Make Time for Movement

It’s no secret that exercise is good for your body, but it also has an incredible impact on your brain. Movement helps you think, problem-solve, and learn. What’s more, getting active releases endorphins, or the “feel-good” chemicals in the brain that can make you feel less stressed.

If you don’t have an hour to spend at the gym, no worries! A quick movement break for every hour of studying can help you stay alert and focused. You can:

  • Try a five-minute mini workout. Run in place, do jumping jacks, or go up and down the stairs.
  • Dance to your favorite song. 
  • Reset with this 90-second yoga exercise.
  • Jog around your block or building.
  • Do push-ups, jumping jacks, or plank for 60 seconds.

Find—and try—more was to move your body

Short movement breaks like these can help you focus, make you more productive, and lower your stress.

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