When the whole point of exams is to get your kids to show their best, it’s no wonder they can get overwhelmed and anxious thinking about exams, they procrastinate to delay the inevitable, or simply get distracted by FAR more exciting teenage obsessions!
Countless kids struggle with their energy levels, focus and mental health during the time leading up to exams such as GCSEs, SATs, Common Entrance, ISEBs, International Baccalaureate, A levels or university exams.
With my three children, we have been through quite a range of exam struggles. It doesn’t just affect your kids, but it can also take a toll on your own mental health, being there as the support crew in the background. I’m not sure what is more worrying as a parent… when one child is highly stressed that they won’t be good enough, or when another isn’t bothered enough either way.
But even though exam stress is pretty inevitable, there are ways to keep on top of the stress response and help focus those minds. Let’s get ready to ride through the revision weeks easily and ace those exams!
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How can pupils avoid getting stressed and burnt out?
Eat a protein-packed breakfast: A nutritious breakfast is essential for optimal cognitive function, memory retention and focus. Foods high in protein, such as eggs, yoghurt, nuts and seeds are great choices. Protein-rich breakfasts help sustain energy levels and promote mental alertness throughout the day. Avoid sugary cereals or pastries as these may cause a sugar crash or sluggishness.
Keep well hydrated: Drinking enough water is vital for good mental health. The brain is thought to be composed of around 73 per cent water, and dehydration can cause fatigue and headaches. Instead of caffeinated drinks like coffee or energy drinks, which increase heart rate and blood pressure, encourage your teen or tween to stick to water, coconut water or diluted natural fruit juices for optimal hydration and better sustained focus.
Get enough sleep: Getting enough sleep is crucial for proper brain function. During sleep, the brain consolidates information learned throughout the day, enhancing memory and learning ability. Ensure your teen gets at least eight hours of sleep, and younger kids need even more sleep. Avoid late-night revision sessions which can interfere with the natural sleep cycle and in turn can lead to fatigue and anxiety. I know this is often easier said than done as many teens claim they work better later; but the evidence is that their brains work better earlier in the day, with mid-morning probably the optimal time.
Take regular breaks: Taking breaks during revision sessions can boost productivity and reduce stress levels. Short, regular breaks every hour or so (or sooner if their focus has a narrower window) can help your child remain focused and motivated while revising. Additionally, taking breaks provides an opportunity to engage in stress-reducing activities like walking, stretching, meditation or deep breathing exercises. Timers are good for remembering when to stop for a break.
Exercise to decompress: Exercise is another excellent way to manage your child’s stress and improve overall health. Physical activity increases the release of endorphins, the brain’s feel-good chemicals, promoting a sense of well-being and relaxation. Engaging in physical activity also improves sleep quality, which is often negatively impacted by stress and anxiety. This can be simply going for a walk, running around the garden, bouncing on the trampoline or kicking a ball around, at several times spaced through the day.
Which nutrients help to boost the brain?
A good nourishing diet is so important to help support brain function. Here are some of the key nutrients to focus on:
Omega-3 fats: Omega-3 gives integrity and fluidity to the brain cell membranes. Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) is an essential omega-3 fatty acid for brain health that makes up around 90% of the omega-3 in the brain. DHA has been shown to nourish the developing brain as well as eye health, and studies have found that this can help with focus and stress control. It is particularly beneficial for the neurodivergent brain including autistic folk and those with ADHD, dyslexia and dyspraxia.
Eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) is another omega-3 fatty acid that plays a significant role in brain health and has anti-inflammatory properties. Additionally, EPA has been linked to improved mood and reduced depression and anxiety symptoms.
These fatty acids are not produced by our body, and therefore we need to consume them through our diet. Omega-3 fatty acids are mainly found in oily fish such as salmon, mackerel and sardines as well as organic whole milk, some eggs, some grass-fed meat, flaxseed, chia seeds and walnuts. Ideally a teen or tween should eat a portion of omega 3 rich food three times a week. You can top up with fish oil or vegan marine algae supplements if needed.
B vitamins: B vitamins are particularly important for brain health because they are involved in producing and regulating neurotransmitters such a dopamine, norepinephrine and serotonin, as well as energy within the brain. A deficiency in B vitamins can lead to various neurological and psychological difficulties, such as memory problems, confusion, depression and anxiety.
These vitamins are water-soluble and need to be consumed regularly, either through diet or supplements, since they are not stored in the body. These vitamins are found in many foods, including whole grains, leafy green vegetables, nuts and seeds, meat, fish, poultry and legumes.
Magnesium: Magnesium helps to regulate the release of neurotransmitters such as dopamine, serotonin and glutamate, which are involved in various brain functions, including mood regulation, memory and learning.
Some of the best food sources of magnesium include spinach, kale, Swiss chard, avocados, dark chocolate, brown rice, quinoa and oats. Nuts and seeds like almonds, cashews, pumpkin and sunflower seeds are all high in magnesium. Some types of seafood, like salmon and mackerel, are also good sources of magnesium.
When they need a boost
L-theanine: Scientific studies have demonstrated that theanine, an amino acid present in green tea and black tea, can affect brain function by reducing symptoms of stress disorders, enhancing mood and promoting healthy sleep patterns. It is rich in the calming neurotransmitter called GABA which helps to regulate stress and promotes a good night’s sleep. If you are not a tea drinker, then you can take theanine supplements.
Lion’s mane: Lion’s mane is a large, white mushroom with long spines that looks a bit like a mane. It is thought to have several cognitive benefits for the brain, including keeping the brain sharp and promoting mental clarity.
Research has shown that Lion’s mane mushrooms contains unique compounds called hericenones and erinacines with anti-inflammatory effects and with antioxidant properties. It may help reduce depression and anxiety. You’ll find it difficult to find this mushroom in a supermarket, but supplements are readily available.
Bacopa monnieri: Bacopa monnieri, also known as Brahmi, has been used in traditional Ayurvedic medicine for a long time to improve memory and reduce anxiety. It is not typically found in food but can be consumed as a supplement in various forms.
Revision and the build up to exams can be a long drawn-out journey, and can take its toll on mental health and energy levels. I hope these tips help to give your loved ones greater resilience, so that they can sail through their exams confidently. If you would like some 1 to 1 support for your child’s exam anxiety, or better focus and performance, then book an appointment with our Teen & Tween Nutritional Therapy Team who are there to help you navigate the revision and exam pressure.
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