Lessons for wellbeing from A-Level exams, on results day
One of our Young Champions shares what she learnt from taking her A-Levels and gives advice to other young people on managing stressful situations.
Exams can be full of stress, anxiety, panic, fear, sleepless-nights, frustration, exhaustion… They can affect our mental health for the worse, particularly when years of work goes into a couple of hours.
I struggled immensely during my GCSE exams. My mental health difficulties were undiagnosed at the time so I wasn’t receiving the right treatment, and exams just worsened everything. I barely slept, had multiple panic attacks during my exams and I reached crisis point.
My A-Level experience was a real contrast. Thankfully, my mental health difficulty is well-managed, and I worked really hard to look after myself in exam season. I want to share what I learnt from taking my A-Levels, about wellbeing, and prove to others that you can get through exams and other very stressful periods, without a breakdown, because I never thought it was possible!
Lesson #1 – Be aware of your mindset and self-talk.
I really focused on my mindset and attitude during my A-Levels and I think that is what helped me to get through it. When I was revising for an exam I would try to consciously tell myself “You have worked really hard and that counts for a lot. You know more than you think you know. You’ve got this”. A lot of the time I felt the opposite, but that’s not the point. Our self-talk is powerful and we need to consciously speak love to ourselves.
Similarly, I tried to have a more positive outlook. Until this year, I was an instinctively pessimistic person. I still struggle with negativity a lot of the time, but the difference is that I now work hard to repeatedly counter that negative narrative my head can get carried away with. There is so much power in positivity, and I don’t mean in a sunshine and rainbows sense. I mean believing that there is hope and believing the best of yourself. And remember, whether the glass is half full or half empty, it can always be refilled.
Lesson #2 – Do I have time to worry about this now? Because if not, I need to put it aside for later.
It is easy to over-think exams. Twitter memes can be reassuring (and hilarious!) but you easily can lose sleep over a single question – I distinctly remember the frustration of not remembering to use partial fractions to solve an integration question! And this worry can apply to so many different stressful situations. What exams teach you is that whilst over-thinking can be really understandable, for the sake of getting through a situation, sometimes we have to temporarily put those worries aside. It’s a real lesson in perseverance.
For me, I found it helpful to talk (and moan!) to my family about the exams (but not too much!), and also I made myself a little box called “A box for thoughts I don’t have the time to think” which I had on my desk and could write down what I was worrying about and ‘box them up’ for later.
It might sound a bit ridiculous to box away worries. If you are constantly boxing them away and never sitting with and working through them, then that is ridiculous and very detrimental. But temporarily deciding to essentially distract from a worry until you have the time, energy, support and privacy to deal with it best, is actually quite clever!
Lesson #3 – A difficult exam or a poor grade does not take away years of hard work. Be proud, nonetheless.
So the exam went terribly? Or the interview, important meeting, performance? Feeling like we didn’t show our absolute best or what we’re truly capable of, when it really counts, can be gutting. I feel gutted that my Maths A-Level exams went so abominably, because I worked really hard for the subject for two whole years! And yet, at the same time, I have a lot to be proud of. I sat three, very tough exams. I did my best in that moment and that is all I could do.
Lesson #4 – Exams require you not to do your best, but do your best in that moment. And where do you shine?
There is a difference between your best overall, and your best in a two-hour, stressful window. That is something we have to accept. Some people thrive in the pressurised situations, but many find the stress really impacts their performance and that is okay. When it comes to exams, we are not exam machines and they can’t measure most of the important skills and qualities that make us who we are.
Not everyone shines in an exam hall. Maybe you shine in the classroom with your peers and friends, or on stage in character, or on the sports pitch, or doing your cheesy dance moves at a party, or when you speak about your passions to an audience...
Know where you shine, and work on accepting that.
Lesson #5 – What will be, will be.
In the month and a bit since my last exam, I have been wondering and deliberating and imagining what results day could bring. I have worried over my grades and my whole future! But I have come to an empowering realisation that I cannot worry anything into existence.
Whatever grades I get, I need to be proud of myself. Whether I get into my Firm university or Insurance, I know I can be very happy. Equally, I’m fully prepared to fight my corner on Clearing if it doesn’t go my way. What will be, will be.
To anyone else awaiting results of any kind, or going through a hard and stressful period, I hope you can take some comfort in those lessons that I learnt, and in the wise old words of Hagrid, “What’s coming will come and we will meet it when it does.”
On My Mind is a website that was co-produced by young people to help other young people. The website includes a self-care page that has 86 self-care strategies, as well as an urgent help page, which features organisations that offer help and support for young people.