5 Ways to Manage Your Mental Health During Exams

by Staff Reporter

Knowing how to manage your mental health during exams will help you feel more prepared, allowing you to study effectively, and ultimately, improve your academic performance. 

However, before we look at how to manage your mental health, it’s important to first understand the vital role that it plays during exam season. 

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Why is Mental Health Important During My Exams?

Research has shown that mental health can negatively impact your mindset during exams, causing you to lose focus, become more forgetful, and ultimately, fail your examination.

The biggest contributor to bad mental health during exams is something known as exam stress. This is a kind of stress that is directly linked to examinations and can lead to thoughts or feelings of anxiety or depression, lack of sleep, exhaustion and loss of control. 

Although it’s completely normal to feel a small amount of stress during exams, experiencing exam stress takes those negative and worried feelings to a whole new level—directly affecting your academic performance and overall well-being. 

Without knowing how to cope with or relieve that stress, you may lose motivation to study and even drop out of university altogether. This makes managing your mental health of the utmost importance.

How Can I Manage Exam Stress During My Exams?

The best way to manage your mental health and overcome exam stress is to first identify the symptoms. So, do you know if you’re experiencing stress from your examinations or just regular, everyday anxiety? Let’s take a look:

Symptoms of exam stress may include any of the following: 

  • Moodiness or negativity
  • Inability to make decisions (indecisiveness) 
  • Loss or increase of appetite 
  • Irregular or poor sleep
  • Lack of motivation to study
  • Finding no joy in activities you used to like
  • Sore or tense muscles and headaches

If you are experiencing any one or a combination of these symptoms, you may have exam stress. Luckily, this type of stress can be overcome and all you need to do is take care of your mental health.

Note: These symptoms are similar to that of generalised anxiety disorder or even depression. If these feelings persist after exams, please speak to someone you trust or seek professional help. 

If you are concerned about your symptoms, the South African Depression & Anxiety Group offers free telephonic counselling, information and resources 24/7.

how to manage your mental health during exams

How to Manage Your Mental Health and Stop Feeling Overwhelmed During Exams

Whether you’re feeling a bit overwhelmed or experiencing exam stress, there are several coping mechanisms you can use for stress management during the examination period.

So, without further ado, here’s how to manage your mental health during exams.

1. Get Regular Sleep During Exams

Getting regular sleep is important, not just during exams but also in general, as it directly influences your mood and emotions—both of which can impact the state of your mental health and cause you to feel overwhelmed. 

Additionally, studies have shown that having a good and regular sleeping pattern is linked with better grades and an overall GPA—making nearly 25% of a difference in students’ academic performance. 

Although it’s important to get a full night’s rest the night before the exam, you need to regularly practise 7 to 8 hours of sleep at least a week before your first examination in order to feel fully rested and refreshed.

Here are some tips for establishing a regular sleeping pattern during exam season:

  • Decide when you’re going to get your minimum of 7 to 8 hours and stick to your sleep schedule (for example, if you plan on sleeping from 9 pm to 5 am every day, then be sure to commit to those times).
  • Don’t go to bed too hungry or overly full as this can disrupt your sleeping pattern.
  • Avoid drinking coffee or any other form of caffeinated drink before bed.
  • Put your phone away at least an hour before you go to bed as the light could influence your body’s internal clock, delaying the release of melatonin (your sleep hormone).
  • Do something relaxing (such as meditation or taking a bath) before bed to prevent stressed thoughts or worries from keeping you up at night.

Tip: Avoid oversleeping, as this can be just as bad as not enough sleep. Be strict with your bed routine and try to go to bed at the same time each night without interruption.

2. Consume Healthy Food and Drinks During Exams

Everyone knows that eating healthy is good for your body, but did you know that certain foods and drinks may actually influence the state of your mental health?

According to Kelly Scholtz, a registered dietitian and spokesperson for The Association for Dietetics in South Africa, there are specific nutrients that directly have an impact on the brain. 

For example, food and drinks high in sugar could raise your insulin to spike. Once you’ve reached that peak, it all comes down to crash and you’re left feeling drowsy, anxious or overwhelmed—things you really don’t want to feel during the exam period. 

Additionally, foods that are lacking vitamins such as B12 could lead to feelings of depression, which could make you feel unfocused while studying. Thankfully, eating the right foods will help you cope with any stress or anxiety you may have, as well as your overall welling.

Here’s a list of foods that will not only keep your mental health in check but will also fuel your brain so that you can study more effectively during your exams:

  • Anxiety: To reduce feelings of anxiety during exams, eat fruits that are high in vitamins C, such as guavas, strawberries, tomatoes and oranges.
  • Stress and depression: To help you with feelings of being overwhelmed or depressed, try to include more vitamin B in your diet (eggs) and omega-3 fatty acids (fish, nuts, avocado and banana).
  • Irritability or nervousness: If you’re feeling irritable or nervous, get food and drinks that are rich in omega-3s, folic acid, vitamin B12 and vitamin D. This includes everything from walnuts, whole grains and fish to beef and dairy products.
  • Exhaustion: If you’re feeling tired, drinking regular glasses of water throughout the day will help to maintain your focus and prevent fatigue.  

Keep a list of healthy food placed on your fridge so you know what to eat when you’re feeling stressed or anxious during your examination period.

3. Make Time for Fun Activities During Exams

It’s essential to make time for fun activities while you study to keep your mood elevated and prevent yourself from feeling overwhelmed.

Be sure to set up a study schedule that includes regular 15 to 20-minute breaks. These breaks can be used to eat a healthy snack, go for a walk, take a power nap, meditate or even have a quick chat with one of your friends.

For the weekends, include longer activities that you can look forward to after those strenuous study sessions throughout the week. Setting out time to have fun is also a good reward system for yourself and will even keep your mental health in tip-top shape while you study.

If you’re unsure of what to do, be sure to download apps like Varsity Vibe and get discounts on all sorts of fun activities that you can do during your time off. 

Discounted activities include, but are not limited to, the following:

  • SANParks: Book a weekend away and get a taste of the outdoors with a few of your friends at a wild rate of 30% off.
  • Virgin Active: Join the gym at an additional 5% off and keep your body in shape and your mind sharp. 
  • Epic Padel: There’s nothing like a good game of padel tennis to fight off the fears and stress of exams—and all it takes to register is a once-off fee of R100.

Visit the Varsity Vibe website to join or download the app on Google Play or iStore to view more activities.

students stretching at their desk while studying

4. Move your Body When Studying

Although the stress of exams may tempt you to fasten yourself to your desk until the examination period is over, this isn’t the best way to go. You need to keep your body moving during study sessions to help stretch those tense muscles and increase your blood flow.

Now, this doesn’t mean you have to go for a 5 km run during your study breaks. All it takes is a small act of movement or change in posture to relieve symptoms of stress, depression and anxiety, improving your mental health and well-being. 

With that said, if you enjoy exercise, going for a quick run or walk during your study breaks is always a great idea. 

However, if cardio isn’t your cup of tea, you can always practise stretching at your desk or table to get that blood pumping and happy endorphins going. 

If you’re looking for some stretches to do, there are tons of YouTube and TikTok videos out there that teach you how to stretch your muscles, breathe and move your body while you study for exams. 

5. Talk to Someone You Trust

If you’re experiencing an excessive amount of exam stress—and feel as if it’s taking a real toll on your mental health—then it may be time to get some help from someone you trust.

When you’re feeling overwhelmed, sharing your concerns with a friend, guardian, parent or teacher can help as they can advise you on the best way to cope with your emotional stressors.

If you find that your feelings extend beyond exam stress, or if you need professional assistance with stress management, don’t hesitate in reaching out to a counsellor or therapist

There are also several universities that offer counselling to students, and you can contact them by using the following details: 




021-808-4994 or 021-938-9590





Is your university missing from this list? If that’s the case, be sure to check out our complete list of institutions to contact regarding counselling services available. 

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