Top tips for getting through
Our top tips have been written by Rachel. If you have thoughts or suggestions to add to these, we'd love to hear from you: please email firstname.lastname@example.org and stick "suggestions for exam time" in the subject title.
Read below for Rachel's personal thoughts about surviving exam time.
Exam time. Nobody likes it. It doesn’t matter how hard you’ve worked or how far you have pushed yourself to your limits whilst revising; you still feel nauseous and uncomfortable walking into the exam wondering if it will all be good enough. I recently had a month's worth of revision and final year exams and it inspired me to write a blog about coping with exams and in particular, coping with an eating disorder or recovery at the same time.
I had considerable problems managing during exams; and I always have; before, during and after my eating disorder. About two months before exams I tend to stop sleeping properly, and start visualising walking into the exam room with nothing to write. Even with 8 weeks still ahead of me I’m jittery and I feel guilty about not revising at every minute of the day despite knowing I still have plenty of time. About a month before exams I tend to go into that ‘exam mode’ that many students experience. Every waking minute is spent hunched over a computer screen reading journal articles. I don’t make time to have hot meals, I leave the library at 2am every night and I never see my housemates because I leave early in the morning to study and don’t return until way past midnight. My life becomes exams. Revision is like an obsession; it has to be done and it has to be done the same way every single day. My friends tell me I need a break, an hour off, they tell me to leave the library and go cook something warm to eat. But I feel guilty when I take a break so I stay there all day, eyes blurring, hand cramping up and head pounding whilst I rely on lots of pro-plus and diet coke to get me through.
I can only remember sitting one GCSE module exam whilst I was anorexic and my behaviours were very bad, although I was still in denial and undiagnosed. I remember leaning over the desk to write an answer and measure how prominent my collarbone was in the exam hall. “Good girl” I thought when I felt it. “Now write something bloody decent”. I had spent weeks revising for one tiny exam; obsessively going over facts again and again; I had to know everything perfectly; I had to get the best score. Throughout Year 10 weight dropped off and A*s fell from the sky simultaneously: I was the ‘typical high-achiever’ the therapists always go on about when they talk about anorexia. But it was all very empty, very unfulfilling because I was never happy anyway; no amount of weightloss was good enough and no exam grade was perfect unless I got full marks. I was trapped in a cycle of constantly pushing myself to the limits only to be disappointed when I ‘wasn’t good enough’.
My next memory is about a month after my diagnosis and I had a Year 11 Maths exam coming up. By this point I was severely underweight and depression had set in. I remember being left sitting in the dining room with all my books out in front of me whilst my mum went out. I started off ok, but my memory and concentration were impaired due to starvation leading me to get confused and muddled quite soon so I became very tearful and angry with myself. I continued revising but my bones were very frail and I remember my joints got sore very quickly after writing. But there was no way I was going to take a break. I had to do well, no matter how painful writing was. Not revising meant failure and failure wasn’t an option. Looking back, my thinking was so black and white.
By the time my mum came back I was in state. She gave me a hug and got me a dressing gown because I was freezing cold as well. Then she told me I should take a break, have a nap and see if that gives me more energy if I refuse to have a snack. But I was obsessive over my revision and sat there for hours, sobbing through the pain and getting steadily more confused. I completely ignored all the signals my body gave me to take a break.
By the time of my Year 13 A-levels I was partially recovered; my weight was still quite low but it was stable and I was managing meals much, much better. But A levels were the biggest exams I had sat so far and the stress and anxiety built up in the months before leading to a doctor’s diagnosis of depression and severe anxiety induced by exams, only 6 weeks before my first exam. I placed myself under unbearable pressure, waking up at 7am and going to bed at 1am and revising pretty much the whole day. The ability to take anything in and function normally soon diminished and the practice papers I was doing religiously were getting harder, sending more waves of anxiety through me so I would stay up even later. Letters were sent off to the examining board and my teachers made phonecalls home concerned about the amount of weight I was losing again.
I had been working steadily towards eating three decent meals and two snacks for some time and was really making some progress. But the racing thoughts about failure led me to lose sight of recovery as I favoured diet coke and pro-plus over proper meals. Thankfully, I was placed on medication and forced to go to bed at a decent time and managed to hold it together, get the grades I needed and made it to University.
University exams have often elicited the same stress response in me; I spend all night in the overnight library, neglect to eat warm food and rely on sandwiches for the whole six weeks and have been known to become very tearful or hysterically giggly as exams approached. However, I have noticed that having a healthier body has resulted in an increased ability to cope and to think rationally about things; I am more aware of my limits and know that my performance will be greatly decreased if I don’t get adequate sleep and meals. I still have a tendency to over-do it but have learnt to be a bit more reasonable now; I take time out to go and talk to my friends a few times a day, and search for silly things on facebook when it starts to get too much. Acknowledging that exams are a difficult time for me and trying to read and plan my revision in advance, scheduling in time to cook and time to relax will be my aim for the summer exams and I’m hoping this will make it all a bit easier!
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