How to manage exam stress in a post-pandemic world?

3 November 2021

Staying focused while balancing post-lockdown freedoms

This year’s exam season feels a little bit different. Clinical Psychologist Dr Erin Kelly from the Matilda Centre shares her ways to manage exam stress and keep up with renewed social activities.

Spring is well underway in Sydney as Jacarandas blossom and fall before our eyes. The old adage says that if you haven't started studying when they bloom, well, you might not be too happy with your results in December. Whether or not the myth is true – exam season is well and truly upon us.

For some it may feel like this year has flown by, while for others lockdowns have felt endless. But no matter where you are in the world, we're near the end of the semester. With exams coming up, assignments to finish and holiday activities to plan, there are a whole lot of things to juggle.

For some of you, end of semester exams feel somewhat unfamiliar this time around as Sydney emerges out of lockdown. As each of us treads through this transition at a different pace, some may feel instantly ready to work, while others are experiencing lingering distress and may not be feeling as motivated.

It’s important to know that your feelings are valid, and you aren't alone. We asked our student volunteers at batyr to share how they're feeling right now.

Student portrait shots: Valerie Elser, Mykah Alipio and Deborah Davis

Batyr student volunteers, from left to right: Valerie Elser (Masters of Business Administration),  Mykah Alipio (Bachelor of Science/Bachelor of Advanced Studies), and Deborah Davis (Bachelor of Arts/Bachelor of Advanced Studies)

Valerie Elser describes her feeling as a mix of ‘anxious excitement’.

“Even though life is ‘returning to normal’, it is still a massive change compared to the past couple months in lockdown."

Deborah Davis has been looking forward to post-lockdown for a while, but “there are still instances where I feel a bit apprehensive about taking my finger off the pause button,” she says.

Mykah Alipio has a piece of advice for fellow students: “People deal with these situations in different ways so don’t feel pressured to pretend to feel the same as your friends.”

So, rest assured that your peers are also going through the same situation, and it's normal to feel different from day-to-day. To help you navigate this stressful but exciting time, we asked Dr Erin Kelly, clinical psychologist and research fellow at the Matilda Centre, to guide you through some scenarios.

Even though lockdown has lifted, I'm just not feeling motivated. It’s like mentally I am still in lockdown

"It’s totally understandable to have trouble transitioning out of lockdown. Many people are feeling this way – it’s been such a strange time and a big adjustment! It may take a little while to feel back to normal, but you will adjust, just as you adjusted to lockdown.

Try to ease yourself in, doing small amounts of study, exercise and social activities, and gradually building it up. Don’t wait for the motivation to come before doing things – motivation actually comes from doing things, so start with some small steps that feel achievable and remind yourself that it’s okay to take your time, you will get there."

Exams are coming up, but there’s so much freedom outside and I can’t stay focused

"This is a very hard time to be doing exams! Not that there’s ever really a great time to do exams, but I can imagine that it’s particularly hard to study at the moment, when we’ve all been waiting so long to be able to get out and do fun stuff.

Balance is key – let yourself book in some social time, but try to keep it in check until the exams are over so you don’t regret it when you get your exam results. You could try to make the study more bearable by meeting friends to study with, studying at the library or at the park, and rewarding yourself for study sessions, like planning your studies for the morning, then catching up with friends in the afternoon.

You could also plan some fun things to do post-exams, to reward yourself for studying and to celebrate the end of exams.

It can be easier to manage FOMO when you know you have some fun nights out or holidays booked in, and you will enjoy them more when you’re free from studies."

Don’t wait for the motivation to come before doing things – motivation actually comes from doing things, so start with some small steps that feel achievable and remind yourself that it’s okay to take your time.
Dr Erin Kelly, Clinical Psychologist, Matilda Centre

My friends seem to be enjoying the freedom, but I don’t feel the same – I'm feeling very anxious about life post-lockdown, is this normal?

"It’s normal to be feeling anxious post-lockdown. We’ve gotten out of the habit of interacting in groups and being out and about it crowds, it’s all a bit overwhelming. Plus we may feel like we don’t have much to talk about since most of us haven’t really been doing much, and we might be feeling anxious about contracting COVID-19.

To manage the anxiety, remind yourself that its normal to be feeling anxious, and that it will get better over time. Try to ease your way back into socialising gradually, starting with just one-on-one catch ups or small groups, and comfortable settings, like sitting outside at a café. Then you can gradually build up to bigger groups and different types of settings, while balancing this with reasonable steps to mitigate the risk of COVID-19.

It’s usually unhelpful to compare yourself to others; we all respond to things a bit differently, so try to focus on doing what is meaningful to you, and accepting that there will be a bit of anxiety until things feel normal again."

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