Soothe exam pressures with our handy tips to relieve the stress

Sleep is food for the brain. When we’re facing difficult times our sleep suffers. With our young people about to experience a long season of revision, often peppered with exam stress, this is the perfect time to take a good look at ways we can all sleep better during challenging times.

Tinkering with sleep patterns sends us into a spin

Our quality of sleep has such an effect on the way we feel as does the quantity. Did you know simply sleeping in at weekends can leave you feeling all hung over and groggy on Monday morning? It feels a lot like jet lag, and it just goes to show how even small changes in our normal sleep patterns can make us feel awful.  On the other hand a lovely sleep, where you drift off quickly at the usual time and wake naturally, leaves you bright and fresh, raring to go, full of the joys of life.

So how, exactly, do you turn the tide, forget your problems, and enjoy refreshing sleep every night? Let’s explore what students can do to get great sleep back on the menu despite exam stress. It’ll also be helpful if you’re struggling to sleep for any other reason.

Mysterious sleep

Plants do it. Animals do it. So do insects. Even some bacteria have circadian cycles like ours, telling them when to wake up and when to nod off in their own strange little way. More or less everything living sleeps in one way or another, to one degree or another.

Dolphins sleep with one eye open and half of their brain switched off. Bees need the same amount of sleep as humans. Snails can snooze for as long as three years at a time, hibernating happily season after season. Despite all this and the fact that every human on the planet sleeps a third of their lives away, we still don’t know a lot about why we sleep but science is constantly learning – just like our students!

One thing is certain - our memories are stronger when we sleep between learning something and having to remember it. And that’s why good sleep is so important for exams.

Simply revisiting the things you’re struggling with just before bed can help. Getting up in the morning to discover you’ve magically memorised what you need to know overnight makes you feel like a genius, which cuts your stress right down!

Sleepy Science & how to sleep better

Some experts say sleep repairs and maintains the brain. There’s no evidence for the old theory about toxins in the brain being flushed out overnight. But it’s possible our bodies use up loads of brain-loving RNA proteins as well as cholesterol while we’re awake, which is replaced while we sleep. Others say sleep is about more than maintenance. Maybe it helps us make and keep memories, moving the most important bits into our internal storage unit.

Our state of mind affects the stress we feel, and that affects our sleep. How about some tips to help you change your state of mind for a more positive one and sleep better?

There are 4 ways mindset affects our stress response and in turn our sleep so why not try combining these with some of our sleep tips?

  1. Shifting attention: A positive mindset allows us to focus on possible opportunities instead of dwelling on the things that are having negative effects. Some simple Yoga stretches and light meditation, both non-stimulating so are perfect at bedtime, encourage you to focus on your body and inner self, shifting you away from negative feelings.  Soothing scents and light self-acupressure can also help. Self-acupressure is widely used to relieve anxiety and is an important part of many people’s home self-care regime. It’s a simple technique inspired by Traditional Chinese Medicine, harnessing massage to stimulate the nervous system and give you a calming therapeutic response. Yin Tang, the Third Eye, lies slightly above the brow line just between the eyebrows, gently massage this area with your fingertips or use a weighted Eye Pillow for a more intense effect.  Another option, the Spirit Gate, Shen Men, found in the centre of the flat triangular part of the top of the ear, known as the helix, is also very effective. You can massage these points as often as you like to reduce stress, and even create your own combinations. Close your eyes. Breathe consciously. Watch how your body responds. It feels lovely.


  1. Positivity: a positive mindset still allows you to feel sad, angry or upset but softens those feelings with positive emotions such as feelings of hope, connection or resilience. “The ‘stress is enhancing’ mindset is a really powerful way of  amping up positive emotions.  Journaling helps with this too  so keep a notebook by your bed and write down everything that is worrying you before sleep.  In the morning look at it again with fresh eyes and write down positive reactions to each one.


  1. Behaviour: People who view stress as bad tend to behave in one of two ways: they either “freak out”, akin to the fight response, or “check out”, a bit like a flight response.  Breathing techniques are a great help in these situations similar to the way counting to 10 before reacting does.  A simple to remember method, suitable for any time is the 444 method. Breathe in for 4 seconds, hold your breath for 4 seconds then exhale for 4 seconds.  More effective than counting sheep when you can’t sleep, not only does it slow your breathing and heart rate down but in turn relaxes your muscles, including the most important one, your brain!


  1. Hormones: at a time when the adolescent brain is constantly fiddling with hormones, added stress triggers over production of stress hormones such as cortisol.   Sleep is also controlled by hormones too, so boost your natural ‘sleep’ hormones by staying away from blue light devices such as phones and tablets for an hour before bed and sleep in total darkness.  If you prefer a small light on for comfort then an eye mask that blocks out the light is a good start – you can quickly slip it off if you need/want to see the light as soon as you wake.



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