How to manage stress during Leaving Cert  exam year (Part One)

In a week long-series, teacher and wellbeing author ALAN WHITE offers some useful advice to students sitting exams this year - today he starts with how to manage stress
How to manage stress during Leaving Cert  exam year (Part One)

Young people can experience intense stress and it can quickly become overwhelming as they have not had enough life experience to learn how to deal with it. Picture: Stock

AS we begin a new year, many young people are returning to school facing into the inevitable stress that comes with sitting the Leaving Cert.

As well as the thoughts of the exams, the class of 2023 have also never had the opportunity to sit state exams before, having received calculated grades for their Junior Cert as a result of the pandemic.

For most students, sitting the Junior Cert gives them some experience of how formal exams work and allows them to learn some valuable skills such as, time management, study skills and how to approach exam papers, however this year’s students, although well prepared by their teachers in the required knowledge and skills, have not yet had the opportunity to use these in practice. This has added an increased anxiety around the exams for some students who are struggling to find the self-belief needed to face this challenge.

Our Perception of Stress.

We tend to view stress in our lives as a negative, many of us try to avoid or reduce the stress in our lives in any way we can. Stress, however, is unavoidable in life and as adults we tend to learn better ways of coping. 

Young people can experience intense stress and it can quickly become overwhelming as they have not had enough life experience to learn how to deal with it.

Stress is often not the problem, its how we view stress. If we look at stress as only negative, we can quickly become overwhelmed and unable to overcome the challenges we are faced with. However, if we view stress as something that will help to energise us and motivate us to overcome, we can use it to help us. Changing how we view stress can really help us to not only cope with it, but also use it as a positive force in our lives that will help us to perform under pressure and achieve our goals.

When facing exams, the amount of work, study and preparation can be immense and cause many young people to just do the minimum to get through the year. By becoming more aware of the purpose of our stress response young people can use it to focus on what’s important and reduce procrastination. When they begin to see that they are making progress and improving, stress is then reduced, and momentum is created allowing young people to work to their full potential.

Taking Action – Even Small Steps at First

When we feel overwhelmed, we can often become lethargic and unmotivated. This often creates a cycle of stress where we know we need to take action but cannot do so which again increases our stress level. 

The best way to help with this is to take action, even the smallest step can be helpful.

For young people studying for exams this can be completing one piece of homework or revising on area of a subject. Once they can do something small successfully, they will quickly become motivated to do more and create a routine where they can complete tasks regularly and increase their self-belief that they can over come the challenges over the next few months.


The Leaving Cert is more often than not seen as a burden by young people. This creates a mental image of difficulty and stress when it comes to the exams. Reframing is looking at situations in our lives from different perspectives. One way that young people can reframe the upcoming exams is by looking at them as an opportunity to succeed and achieve rather than an obstacle to their futures. 

By changing how we view difficult situations and events in our lives we can often increase our motivation to overcome them.

When Stress Becomes Too Much

Stress can become a problem when young people don’t have the skills and resilience to cope with it. It is recognisable in a physical sense by getting frequent headaches, aches and pains and frequent illnesses.

Emotional stress presents itself through irritability, feeling overwhelmed, having sudden angry outbursts and feeling impatient with family and friends.

Cognitively distressed students find it hard to concentrate, feel unmotivated and unfocused.

Behaviourally, students will express negative stress by over or under eating, drinking or overusing technology to distract themselves.

Asking For Help

When students become over stressed its important to be able to ask for help. Often, however, young people try to cope alone and wait until things become too much for them before letting someone know they need help. Encouraging students to ask for help when needed and letting them know that there is support available to them is crucial. 

This support can be from family, a teacher, or anyone the student trusts to share what they are going through with.

Talking about what we are struggling with allows us to make sense of it but also helps us to view how we are thinking about something from different perspectives which can help us to find new ways of approaching any situation or event we find challenging.


Alan White is a second level teacher, 6th Year Head and wellbeing author at Bishopstown Community School. He also facilitates wellbeing workshops for companies and organisations. For more information visit linkedin Alan White or facebook Changes Wellbeing

TOMORROW (TUESDAY IN PRINT AND ONLINE): Staying motivated during exam year.

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