Six Tips on Surviving Exams With a Mental Illness

Aaah…exam season, the most stressful time of year. No matter what program you’re in, how much you like a course or how far ahead you study, exams are stressful for everybody. However, they are especially stressful for people with a mental illness, like me. I was diagnosed with anxiety and depression and no matter how hard I try to prevent it, exam season is always rough because I either binge eat or starve myself, I sleep all the time, I get really angry or sad about little things, and I just feel numb and hopeless even though the happy holidays are right around the corner. If you have a mental illness and exam season is hard for you too, here are six pieces of advice I have for you to survive this exam season.

1) Talk it out

When you have a mental illness and you are in a bad place, sometimes all you want to do is isolate yourself and bottle up your feelings. This exam season, although it is easier said than done, try to talk to somebody about what you’re going through—whether it’s a parent, a friend or a counselor. Last week I felt my symptoms of depression kicking in and while I just wanted to sit alone in my room, feel horrible and do nothing, I mustered up all the courage that I had to go to the Wellness Education Centre and ask for help. When I got there, the girl who helped me was so kind and supportive it made me feel comfortable enough to let out all of the tears that I was holding in. She just sat with me for twenty minutes, a tissue box in one hand and coping strategy handouts in the other. Since then, I’ve been checking in with my mom two or three times a day and let me tell you, it makes a world of a difference.

2) Study with friends

Exams are exhausting and challenging and when you are already in a low place mentally, it makes it even harder. That is why it is so important to find a buddy and study together, take breaks together and just keep each other motivated. Whether you and your friends go to a conversation-friendly space like a coffee shop or a quieter place like a library, exam season is more bearable when you have friends who are suffering with you.

3) Take care of yourself

You might be thinking: “Yeah, I know I’m supposed to take care of myself during exams, okay? But I don’t have time to eat, sleep or exercise because I have a million things to study for!” Hear me out though. While it might be easier to keep grinding and cramming, if you don’t take care of yourself, not only does your body suffer but your mind suffers too. So if you’re tired, have a nap. If you’re hungry, eat something. If you want to wear sweatpants and a hoodie, do it. If it’s getting late and your brain can’t process information anymore, then either take a break or just go home and start again the next day. If you’re stressed, de-stress in whatever way that works for you (I personally take walks and watch Gossip Girl). If you write an exam, give yourself the night off. Be gentle with yourself because at the end of the day, you’re doing the best that you can do and listening to what your body needs might actually help you focus and study better.

4) Try to make a schedule and a plan

When you have a mental illness and you have to study for exams, it often feels like the weight of the world rests on your shoulders. That’s why it can help to make a list of every reading and lecture that you need to go through for an exam and then make daily goals for how you’re going to tackle them. But make REALISTIC daily goals (like three to six things) every day because nothing is worse than having twenty things on your to-do list and only being able to cross off one or two. Although this process may sound daunting, don’t beat yourself up if you don’t get everything done that you wanted during the day. You can always wake up and try again tomorrow.

5) Go study anywhere other than Weldon

I have a love-hate relationship with Weldon but Weldon during exams is the worst. I’m not kidding—the atmosphere of the whole place feels like sadness and misery; things that definitely won’t help you if you have a mental illness. So, try to avoid Weldon as much as possible and go literally anywhere else like one of the many other libraries on campus (law, music, Taylor, Ivey), one of the other nice study spots on campus (FIMS/Nursing Building, Physics & Astronomy Building), or somewhere off campus (public libraries, coffee shops like Common Wealth in downtown or Aroma at Masonville). Sometimes the right location can change everything.

6) Put it in perspective

Putting things in perspective is a tricky thing to during exam season for everybody, but especially when you have a mental illness. Sometimes it just feels like a never-ending hole of stress and darkness. I think the exact words I used with that sweet girl at the Wellness Education Centre last week was feeling like I was in “a dark tunnel and I can’t see the light.” However, it is so important to see the big picture of exam season by reminding yourself that these feelings are temporary, the holidays are around the corner, exams are only one part of your grade and even if you don’t do well, one bad grade isn’t going to ruin your life. While it is difficult to not get incredibly overwhelmed when you study, don’t forget to look at the big picture—these are just exams and they are not worth getting worked up over. When it comes down to it, you go into exams and do the best that you can and if they don’t go well, you will have more courses with more opportunities to succeed. So, while school and grades matter, don’t forget your mental health matters more.  

Let’s face it, exams suck for everybody, but when you are diagnosed with a mental illness, they suck even more. Hang in there and don’t forget: you are a human being before you are a student and your health and wellbeing always matters more than your grades. Do the best you can and don’t be afraid to reach out for help if you need to (see resources below). I’m giving you all my love and support—you’re going to get through this!


Psychological Services Western Student Services Building 4100 (next to UCC) Call: (519) 661-3031  

Wellness Education Centre UCC Room 76 (Mon-Fri 10am-6pm) Call: (519) 661-2111 ext. 87127  

Good2Talk Call: 1-866-925-5454  

Reach Out Call: 1-866-933-2023  

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