Taking Care of Mental Health During Exam Sessions  

Professor Nicola Petrocchi shares advice and information as I reflect on the impact of exam sessions on mental health.


By Micol Silvera / Matthew staff | | Edited by Gioia Kunst

Photo by Tim Gouw on Unsplash.

“I should revise that chapter once more. The laptop needs to be fully charged. Does the Wi-Fi connection work? I need to arrive a couple of minutes in advance in order to make sure that everything is working. What if I’m in the wrong class? I can’t remember any of the topics I studied. I hope I will be able to answer all the questions.” 

That is what happens inside my head before an exam, and although it’s so overwhelming that it makes me hyper-self-absorbed, I often discover other students experience this as well. Papers, quizzes, mid-terms, finals: in all of their forms, they contribute to higher levels of anxiety and stress, and even when we are confident about our preparation, we still tend to become overly worried. This might happen because we are aware that exams verify the skills and knowledge required by the course, which leads us to a destabilizing question: are we good enough? Our angst about picking the correct answer expands into the fear of being unable to meet the expectations set by our study path, and the ones we set for ourselves. 

As a result, this anxious approach tends to make us forget about our necessities, to the point to which sometimes we worry so much about passing our exams that we overlook our mental health, while we need to find a healthy balance that enables us to satisfy both our academic ambition and our mental health. 

Dr. Nicola Petrocchi, psychotherapist and professor of Psychology at JCU, shared with us advice and recommendations on how to take care of our mental health during exam sessions.  You can also read more about Professor Petrocchi’s research expertise on Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT), Compassion Focused Therapy (CFT), Loving Kindness Meditation (LKM), and heart rate variability.  

Exam sessions represent an overwhelming amount of work for students which can negatively impact their mental health. What is a good way to take care of mental health during such a demanding period? 

The first thing to do would be planning, not only the study work but also the breaks. We tend to organize the study material, which is very useful, but we often forget to plan moments of relaxation, which enable our mind to recuperate and be more efficient; a break every 45 minutes would be ideal. Another very important thing is to completely focus on studying, avoiding each type of distraction that would make us less productive, more tired, and more self-critical, all aspects which negatively impact mental health in the long run. It is, therefore, more efficient to separate moments of intense studying and moments of complete rest. 

What would you identify as a good signal to prevent students from enduring fatigue? 

A state of mental fatigue in academic life occurs when one ruminates, gets distracted while having a test, or cannot focus while studying; all of those would be signals that one needs more breaks and more rest. Fatigue’s signs would also indicate a sense of detachment from what one does, for example, not really liking studying a subject that you used to like, a feeling you might realize to be a sign of fatigue. 

Perfectionism: a dangerous trap that can lead students to become workaholics, and still be dissatisfied with their results. However, it can also be a great motivator. How can one distinguish healthy and unhealthy perfectionism? 

The element that feeds perfectionism is what makes it healthy or not. Perfectionism becomes unhealthy if it is connected to the avoidance of something; someone might be a perfectionist in order to avoid failures, which could be due to the fear of being criticized. Differently, healthy perfectionism is fueled by a positive goal. For instance, “I am a perfectionist because I really want to do good.” In that case, perfectionism leads you in a direction, instead of making you escape from something. Hence, you need to ask yourself if your perfectionism is caused by fear, or if it is based on a desire to be excellent. If you realize that you are dealing with avoidance of flaws and imperfection, you need to feel compassion for yourself, investigate why you are so scared of mistakes, and be able to forgive yourself if you do something wrong. One needs to turn negative perfectionism into a positive one through a goal and understanding what one wants to achieve. 

Students experience exam sessions in different ways with different struggles. How would you say exam sessions exacerbate their different types of anxieties, and how would one be able to overcome them? 

For some students, studying for an exam is hard because it’s their first time, and they do not know how it is structured; others, instead, might be concerned about graduating on time, while others might be unsure about the path they chose, so it really depends on what makes you anxious about that exam. A good thing to do when feeling anxious, or when procrastinating, would be to ask yourself why are you anxious, and what is making you anxious; writing down these feelings in a journal and noting the specific moments in which you experience them can be very helpful. There is no overall recipe, but being compassionate and curious about what makes you nervous about an exam, self-disclosure, and journaling are great ways to identify the cause of anxiety.  

Besides university, a student’s life is about many other things: family, relationships, and more. Sometimes, events that are not related to education impact academic performance; some in a drastic way, others in a minor one. What would be the healthier way through which one should face inconveniences during the exam session?  

Life happens, of course, and university is beautiful also because of the other things that happen during this time. Still, it is important to keep in mind your goal. Of course, if something really bad happens, for instance, enduring a big loss and needing to be close to your family, you need to forgive yourself and acknowledge being vulnerable; the mistake here would be being overly demanding of yourself while you need to acknowledge and accept your vulnerability. For other things, like relationships, friendships, and more, it is important to identify your priority and to remember that studying is what will bring positive effects in the long run.  

During moments of intense studying, spending time with friends is an important source of support, but it is also important to be disciplined, not for discipline’s sake, but because if you are able to devote the right amount of time to study, you will be more satisfied, and that will enable you to better enjoy your life, relationships, and all else. Therefore, it is important to identify your priority and to try to find some balance when something unexpected happens; life is not perfect, and a positive way to frame it is remembering it is okay to struggle and not to be perfect, and that you can still dedicate time to study and commit to exams even if the conditions are not the ones you expected. 

Mindfulness and compassion are crucial tools for mental health; how can these elements help students individually, and with one another, in their academic life? 

I would recommend a couple of moments a day in which you close your eyes, you connect with your breathing, with no goals, just with the intention to connect with the present moment as it is. Most of the anxiety during exam sessions is due to overthinking, overdramatizing, or over-anticipating something that did not happen. Hence, it is helpful to connect to the “here and now,” and on top of that, you would feel the connection with your emotions and feel compassion for the suffering you are going through. It is important to have a mindful and friendly approach towards yourself, to understand what you need right now, and to be self-supportive.  

In Compassion Focused Therapy, there are different types of compassion: the compassion we give ourselves, the one we give to others, and the one we receive from others. It is important to recognize elements of compassion in our lives and feel compassion for ourselves, but also for others. During exam sessions, we tend to be confined to our own bubble and forget that others are struggling, too. Research has reported that when we remember the suffering of others, our stress response is alleviated. So, at least 30 minutes a day, in moments of exam preparation, focus only on others; that will keep you be in a less competitive environment with others and with yourself, and that will help you release stress because compassion is linked to oxytocin, to the parasympathetic system, and therefore, it is helpful for alleviating your overall stress. 

Last question, professor! Could you share three pieces of advice you would give students to take care of their mental health during exam sessions? 

The first piece of advice is to be compassionate with yourself and others: take time to slow down, be mindful of whatever you are doing, close your eyes, breathe in and breathe out, and try to experience as much friendliness as you can toward yourself. The second piece of advice is to remember time will pass, there will be a day after, the stress will go away, and step by step you will finish your exams. The last piece of advice would be to plan your study time and your study breaks.