'Stress can be a creative force, depending on how we perceive it'

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It has been calculated that by the time students have done their A-levels, they will have taken about 75 tests and exams. According to the modern belief that exams equal stress, that's a lot of potential stress. How do they cope?

It has been calculated that by the time students have done their A-levels, they will have taken about 75 tests and exams. According to the modern belief that exams equal stress, that's a lot of potential stress. How do they cope?

As Gerald Hattee, principal of Collingham independent sixth form college in London, puts it: "To do well in an exam you need to be stressed, because it's what gets the adrenaline going. But it's a matter of balancing that stress, so that you are taking an active approach rather than an anxious approach. If you are too stressed, you don't give your best answers; you write irrelevantly, and you miss the point of questions."

"We talk about stress as if it is entirely negative," says Christopher Nickolls, a child psychologist specialising in stress. "It isn't. It is a form of arousal, and some elements of arousal are very important. We wouldn't, for instance, get up in the morning without it. Stress can be a positive, creative force, rather than something that makes us sick. It depends how we perceive it."

Becoming over-stressed can, however, have negative consequences - if you don't know how to handle it. Dr Nicky Hayes, a chartered psychologist who specialises in exams and student learning, is convinced that exam stress is "the source of a great dealof underachievement".

One of the first signs that a student is getting stressed in the build-up to exams is that he or she becomes much more irritable and short-tempered - often taking this out on parents. Sleeping is often affected too; young people may be sleeping more than usual, loath to get up, or they may be experiencing difficulty sleeping at all.

Eating is another prime area affected by stress. Usually, a student will simply eat more, craving sweet, high-calorie "comfort" food; this is not a huge problem, Dr Hayes says, as the student can always diet after the exams. Students who stop eating altogether are a serious concern. They may temporarily feel euphoric on no food, but this is dangerous because the body is on starvation mode - which is itself extremely stressful. One student had blanked out in her exam, having not eaten for three weeks.

Caffeine and bars of chocolate may seem to offer a quick fix for the revising student, but Dawn Hamilton, in her book Passing Exams: A guide for maximum success and minimum stress (Cassell, £9.99), says research has shown that the ability to do tasks such as memorising information actually declines after consuming caffeine. High-sugar snacks may provide a big dose of glucose, making you feel mentally alert for about half an hour, but after that you are likely to feel lethargic and mentally sluggish.

Far more helpful, says Hamilton, is to feed the brain with a steady supply of glucose by eating foods high in complex carbohydrates - for example, whole-grain bread, muesli, brown rice, pulses, porridge, baked potatoes - which are slowly digested by the body and slowly release energy. Avoid long periods without eating by having small, healthy snacks (nuts, muesli bars) every three to four hours.

Exercise is also supremely important at times of stress. The body's sympathetic nervous system is activated when we are exercising, causing the heart to beat faster and the blood to flow faster in the veins. When we stop exercising, the parasympathetic nervous system takes over, getting the muscles relaxed, the digestion working properly, and starts to store up glucose.

Stress also activates the sympathetic nervous system, says Dr Hayes, but without physical exercise to use up the body's stored energy, the parasympathetic system does not come into effect, and therefore you never calm down. With people of equal ability, those who do sport will tend to do better in exams than those who don't, because they will have lower stress levels.

Other ways of relaxing mind and body can be helpful in the run-up to exams, such as yoga, Tai Chi and massage. Revising to certain types of music, notably Baroque music, is known to have a positive effect onyour mental state - but this, of course, is not much use if the music is not to your taste.

Like an athlete preparing for a competition, it is important never to visualise failure, says Dr Hayes, but to adopt positive thinking and to visualise yourself succeeding at each stage of the process. Again like an athlete, make sure your body - as well as your mind - is in peak condition (plenty of sleep, good food and exercise), and give yourself lots of practice. Working on past papers and doing timed exam questions will be far more beneficial than simply staring at your notes.

Surround yourself, too, with people who motivate you and make you feel good about yourself. Friends who talk of nothing but their anxieties and how little revision they've done are probably best given a wide berth until it's all over.