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Improving stress, energy and focus during GCSE and A-Level exam season: strategies for teens

As the academic year progresses, so does the intensity of exams, especially for students facing GCSEs and A-Levels. These crucial milestones can bring about a whirlwind of emotions, from anticipation to anxiety. While striving for academic excellence is commendable, it's equally important to prioritise mental health during this challenging period.

Get in touch with our caring team today if you need support during this difficult time.

students working in a classroom

Dr Gil Myers, a Consultant Child & Adolescent Psychiatrist at Schoen Clinic Chelsea says, “There's lots of pressure on young people at the moment, and I think often that's where things can spill over into causing more difficulties in life, particularly around low mood.” This then affects different aspects of their lives and can have a significant impact on their mental health, especially around exam time with the added pressure to perform well.

Dr Gil Myers, Consultant Child & Adolescent Psychiatrist headshot

“It might be that they've noticed they're having more difficulties with their sleep, with their concentration, with their focus, or maybe even something a little bit more nebulous, a little bit more uncertain, like they're just not able to get the most from life. They're just feeling a bit lost. What’s important is trying to get them out of that situation and thinking about what else is out there and what can be done.”

Anxiety, depression, and heightened stress levels are common experiences during this time and the fear of failure and uncertainty about the future can exacerbate these feelings. Recognising these challenges is the first step towards providing appropriate support and intervention. In this article, we break down some simple strategies to help teens manage stress levels during this time and offer some specialist nutritional advice for improving focus.

Managing stress and anxiety during exam time

It's crucial to equip teenagers with effective strategies to manage stress and anxiety during exam season, here’s 5 key things to implement:

  • Mindfulness and relaxation techniques: Encourage teens to practice mindfulness meditation, deep breathing exercises, or progressive muscle relaxation to alleviate stress and promote relaxation.

  • Healthy lifestyle habits: Emphasise the importance of maintaining a balanced diet, regular exercise, and sufficient sleep. These lifestyle factors play a significant role in regulating mood and managing stress levels.

  • Time management skills: Help students develop effective time management techniques, such as creating study schedules, setting realistic goals, and taking regular breaks to prevent burnout.

  • Seeking support: Encourage open communication and let students know that it's okay to ask for help when needed. Whether it's talking to a trusted adult, seeking guidance from a school counsellor, or connecting with peer support groups, having a support system can provide much-needed reassurance and perspective.

  • Healthy coping mechanisms: Encourage teens to engage in activities they enjoy outside of studying, such as hobbies, sports, or spending time with friends and family. These activities serve as healthy outlets for stress and promote overall wellbeing.

Another piece of added pressure for students, particularly during exam season, comes in the form of perfectionism. Addressing perfectionism involves recognising that the desire to excel in exams can sometimes lead to detrimental perfectionistic tendencies.

To counteract this, try to set realistic expectations for teens and help them understand that setbacks are normal and perfection isn’t always attainable. Encouraging a growth mindset where failures are seen as opportunities for learning and growth can be beneficial. Additionally, promoting self-compassion is crucial; teens should be taught to be kind to themselves and understand that their worth is not solely determined by exam results.

Emphasising balance is also important, encouraging teens to pursue interests outside of academics to build resilience and reduce fixation on achievement alone.

a variety of foods, a balanced diet

Feeding focus: what foods are great for helping students improve focus and energy? Vitamin B complex and essential fatty acids.

Diana Badare, a nutritionist at Schoen Clinic Chelsea offers some great tips for diets that fuel focus.

Diana Badare, Nutritionist headshot

“It’s important to note that each individual has unique dietary needs for optimal performance. However, maintaining a balanced diet rich in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean proteins, and fats is fundamental for overall health and wellbeing. If we’re thinking about focus, vitamin B complex and essential fatty acids are known to play a crucial role in optimal brain and vision function and energy production.”

We’ve highlighted some foods below rich in essential fatty acids and various B vitamins that can help students focus and maintain energy levels:

  • Whole grains: Foods like oats, brown rice, quinoa, and whole wheat provide B vitamins such as thiamine (B1), riboflavin (B2), niacin (B3), and folate (B9). These vitamins contribute to energy metabolism and cognitive function.

  • Leafy green vegetables: Spinach, kale, collard greens, and other leafy greens are rich in folate (B9) which supports brain health and cognitive function.

  • Legumes: Beans, lentils, chickpeas, and peas are excellent sources of various B vitamins including thiamine (B1), riboflavin (B2), niacin (B3), and folate (B9). They provide sustained energy and help in maintaining focus.

  • Nuts, seeds, seaweed: Almonds, peanuts, sunflower seeds, and flaxseeds are rich in vitamin B6, which is important for neurotransmitter synthesis and cognitive function.

  • Eggs: Eggs are a good source of various B vitamins and essential amino acids, including B12, which is essential for nerve function and the production of red blood cells. It also helps in maintaining energy levels.

  • Dairy products: Milk, yoghurt, and cheese are rich in B vitamins essential fatty acids, especially riboflavin (B2) and B12, which support energy metabolism and brain function.

  • Fish: Fatty fish such as salmon, sardines, seabass, trout, and mackerel are excellent sources of vitamin B12 and omega-3 fatty acids, which are beneficial for brain health and cognitive function.

  • Bananas: Bananas are a good source of vitamin B6, which helps in the production of neurotransmitters like serotonin and dopamine, contributing to mood regulation and focus.

  • Avocado: Avocado contains various B vitamins, including riboflavin (B2) and niacin (B3), along with healthy fats that support brain health and energy production.

  • Fortified foods: Some foods, such as fortified bread, breakfast cereals, may contain added B vitamins like B12, which can be beneficial for students, especially if they have dietary restrictions or limited access to certain foods.

Incorporating these foods into your diet can help provide the necessary B vitamins and essential fatty acids to support focus and energy levels, which are crucial for students during their academic pursuits.

Supporting teens with transition and coping with uncertainty during the exam period:

For many teenagers, GCSEs and A-Levels mark a significant transition period, whether it's entering higher education, pursuing vocational training, or entering the workforce. Coping with uncertainty about the future can be daunting.

Here are 3 ways to support teens during this transition:

  • Exploring options: Provide resources and guidance to help teens explore various post-exam pathways, including further education, apprenticeships, and career opportunities.

  • Encouraging flexibility: Remind teens that it's normal for plans to evolve over time and that it's okay to adapt to changing circumstances. Encourage flexibility and openness to new opportunities.

  • Highlighting resilience: Reinforce the idea that resilience is built through facing challenges and overcoming adversity. Remind teens of their strengths and abilities to navigate transitions successfully.

As teenagers prepare for GCSEs and A-Levels, it's essential to prioritise their mental health and wellbeing. By providing a supportive environment, equipping teens with coping strategies, and promoting resilience, we can help them navigate exam season with confidence and resilience.

At Schoen Clinic Chelsea, we are committed to supporting teenagers in achieving academic success while prioritising their mental health every step of the way.

Get in touch today for expert support from our team at Schoen Clinic Chelsea.

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