Emma's story: Managing exam stress | Jigsaw Online

Emma's story: Managing exam stress

Emma* contacted Jigsaw about four months before her Leaving Cert exams. She had been feeling anxious for a while, but in the last few weeks she’d had two panic attacks. Her main worry was that she’d get a panic attack in an exam. “I have to get rid of this anxiety now”, she told the clinician, “before my mocks”.

Identifying triggers for stress

Emma’s clinician wanted to know more about the anxiety and panic attacks. When did they happen? Was there a trigger? They discovered that Emma’s panic attacks happened just after Emma’s teachers mentioned study plans or expected study hours in class. When her history teacher said “you all should have covered this section in your revision plan already”, Emma felt her heart beating fast and chest getting tight. She rushed to the toilet because she felt she couldn’t breathe, and barely remembers the rest of the day.

The Jigsaw Clinician helped Emma realise her panic attacks were connected to the worry that she was so far behind on study that she’d never be able to catch up. This was connected to a deeper worry that she would fail her exams, be unable to get into college or ever get a job, and be a “complete failure” in life. The Jigsaw Clinician asked her to take a step back, look at the facts and be realistic about what could happen. They discussed strategies for managing exam stress.

With these activities gone from her week, Emma had no mental break from thinking about the Leaving Cert.

Together they looked at Emma’s schedule. The clinician asked Emma to draw out her weekly calendar. She coloured in the hours she spent studying as blue, with different colours for other activities. When she was finished, Emma’s waking hours were almost completely blue.

Study schedule 

She was waking at 6am to study before she left for school. Getting home at 5pm, she had dinner and studied again from 6 until 10 or 11pm. Weekends were similar, going to grinds in the morning and studying in the afternoon and evening. To fit this study plan into her life, Emma had stopped going to basketball on Tuesday and Thursday evenings, and stopped walking her dog.

With these activities gone from her week, Emma had no mental break from thinking about the Leaving Cert. Her school didn’t do PE in sixth year so she was getting almost no exercise. She was getting two hours less sleep a night than she used to.

Using the idea of the Leaving Cert as a marathon, the clinician asked Emma if it was the best way to prepare for the exams. Emma agreed it wasn’t productive, as the schedule showed she wasn’t getting enough sleep, rest or downtime. Emma also showed the schedule to her mother, who had been pressuring her to study. Emma’s mother was shocked at the hours she was putting in, and helped her plan a more realistic study schedule for herself.

Adjusting expectations

Emma put back in the things she enjoyed like walking her dog, basketball, and going to the cinema once a month. As she added more sleep and downtime into her schedule, her anxiety decreased. Her clinician asked her to change her thinking from being the best, to doing her best.

Emma set more realistic targets for her exam results. She decided to apply for some PLC courses in case she didn’t get the university course she wanted. She distanced herself from a group in school who talked about nothing but getting 600 points.

When a teacher mentioned study plans, or a classmate talked about studying until midnight, Emma repeated the phrase ‘I’m doing my best’ to herself. Two months before her exams, she was a lot more relaxed about realistic about the exams. She said no matter what her result, she would still have options and avenues open to her. She didn’t have another panic attack.

Read more about managing anxiety.

*Names have been changed