Ask the expert: Dr Tamara O’Connor
Welcome to ReachOut.com’s Ask the Expert service
Through this service the ReachOut.com team will be working with a group of professionals and experts with detailed and specialist knowledge of youth mental health issues such as anxiety and depression to answer your questions and address your concerns. The issues covered will be the same as those covered throughout ReachOut.com but through this service we will be able to provide valuable insight into more specific and personal concerns that you may have.
Each month we concentrate on one particular mental health area and work, mainly, with one specific collaborator. Dr Tamara O’Connor is and educational psychologist. She took your questions on exam stress, anxiety and performance tips.
Questions and answers
We won’t have all the answers to every question – but we do have access to the best available information, so let us know what’s on your mind by submitting a question here.
The advice provided through this service is not intended to replace face-to-face professional advice or any on-going support that a person may be receiving. If you or someone you know is in crisis now you should go to emergency support information.
Hi Dr. Tamara,
Whenever I study for long periods I seem to get deep migraines.
Thank you, Thomas.
There might be several reasons for your headaches. I’m not a medical doctor and I think it would be important to rule out physical causes. For example, it could be eye strain especially if you’re spending a lot of time in front of a computer screen or poring over books and notes. Also, during exams you’re probably under stress, perhaps not sleeping as well or taking in more caffeine then usual all which of can contribute to headaches.
So in addition to getting your migraines checked medically I suggest you try to work in shorter periods with regular, short breaks (maybe with some quick exercise like a brisk walk around the block). You could also try some breathing or relaxation exercises as tension might be contributing to the headaches. There’s a 2 minute one available on www.calm.com that you could use during your short breaks! More information is available at https://ie.reachout.com/inform-yourself/anxiety-panic-and-shyness/stress/. Make sure to try to eat healthy, sleep regularly and drink water to stay hydrated.
Finally, try studying in a variety of ways like verbally quizzing yourself, creating diagrams for your wall or revise with friends (www.vark-learn.com) has helpsheets on different ways to learn material). This might help with the intensity of long study periods as well as being effective for learning and understanding.
I hope the migraines go and I wish you success in your exams.
All the best, Tamara
Just wondering what are the options if I fail a part of my module? Thank you. Brenda
This is difficult to say as every course, school/department or college/university has different policies. It also depends on what, why and how you fail part of your module. If it is because you fail your final exam many colleges have supplemental or repeats in the summer so you might get a chance to re-take the exam. Your course handbook might have some information but I think it would be a good idea to talk with your academic advisor, tutor or course co-ordinator to establish your options.
If you haven’t failed your module yet or haven’t taken your exam, and are just worried, clarify your options but then focus on doing the best you can in your exam. It can be very distracting wondering about ‘what ifs’ – instead try to concentrate on what you can do now. What can you do to revise, to plan answers, to practice that might help you perform as best you can on the day? If this is the case for you I’d have a few specific suggestions so please get back to me.
Hi, I’m in third year and my junior cert is coming up. I suffer with stress and go completely blank in exams. I’m really worried and I don’t know what to do at this point. I feel my life is about exams. Help please!
This time of year there is a lot of focus on exams and sometimes it can contribute to an unbalanced view of exams. Just like an athlete, musician or other performer it’s important to keep your performance (in your case your junior cert) in perspective and do the best that you can. I have a few suggestions to help you:
Try to see the exams as an opportunity – to see what you know at this stage of secondary school, as a chance to practise your exam skills, etc. Again, just trying to balance the negative, pressure-inducing views and feelings as they probably will not go away. And some anxiety and pressure is actually good, it helps to motivate us and get the brain working!
Try to balance some of the negative thoughts and statements you’re telling yourself (maybe something like “there’s so much to review and not enough time”) with positive, coping statements that help you to focus on the now and what you can do (maybe something like “We’ve covered this in class, I’ll make some points about x”).
Make sure you practise answering questions, but in exam-like conditions. We call this simulation. So clear your desk of any notes (you won’t have them in the exam hall). Start by getting a blank piece of paper and just seeing what you can recall on a topic – what information, points, etc. Then maybe try answering a question in a certain time. Try to replicate exam conditions as much as possible. This also gives you a chance to see what you need to focus on plus, like any skill, it will get more familiar and automatic. Also, self-testing is a great way to embed information in your memory!
Visualisation and mental rehearsal are also a good way to practise for exams and help manage anxiety, increasingly used by athletes. By this I mean picturing yourself in the exam situation (try to make it as real as possible in your mind’s eye – what you’re wearing, any sounds, smells, tastes) and calmly, confidently getting the exam paper, answering the questions well, turning it in and feeling satisfied with the result. Only picture success!
Practise some breathing and relaxation techniques. A simple one is to take a deep breath, inhaling through your nose (try counting to 2), fill your chest then exhale slowly through your mouth. If you do find yourself blanking out, try to get control over the anxiety:
Use your breathing exercise to relax
Tell yourself, sharply “STOP”. This will help the negative thoughts and feelings that are probably ‘buzzing’ around in your head. Immediately tell yourself some of the positive, coping thoughts that you practised (like “I’ve prepared the best I can”). You could also try the WASP procedure:
Wait – focus on your breathing, close your eyes and try to relax
Absorb – the feeling of being relaxed and your breathing, nothing else. Fill your mind with the positive self-talk.
Slowly open your eyes and return to the exam
Slowly proceed – get going, do what you can.
Try doodling or drawing or writing anything you can think of, just to try to trigger something in your memory.
The key is to practise the techniques so they are as routine as other skills.
All the best, Tamara
I have been having anxiety for a few months now and I was given 10mg Lexapro for the anxiety/depression and 5 mg ambien to help with sleep. It seems I have excessive worries about the future with my girlfriend who I know is “the one” for me. I get these thoughts about “if I really love her” when I know deep down the answer is yes. I also had anxiety over sexuality (I’m a heterosexual male) based on living in a gentrified neighborhood where I’m constantly exposed to homosexuality. My roommate from college came out to me and ended his relationship with his girlfriend of 4 years and it seemed like I would always question myself after that. I was also hit on at a party multiple times by a homosexual male, which was the trigger to my overall anxiety. During the last year, my pet of 12 years passed away and my brother had a blood clot in his chest, which was a stressful 2 weeks. Work has also been stressful. I’m seeing a therapist now and also continuing my medication. I have felt myself getting better, but want some help in figuring out how. Thank you!
You seem to have a lot going on in your life at the moment. It’s understandable that you’re experiencing anxiety. You are doing the right thing by seeking help from a therapist and taking your medication – please continue as this is very important.
Sometimes our perspective gets distorted and we tend to focus on the negatives. Maybe try to identify some things that are going well and list/think about past successes as a way to balance things. Talking to people you love and trust is also beneficial for dealing with stress and anxiety. Further resources are available at www.reachout.com.