How to manage exam stress in the ‘new normal’

A man sleeping on a pile of books
With another unique exam season coming, it could be time to re-evaluate how you spend your study breaks (Photo by Shutterstock).

Alexa Battler

Exams are largely switching back to in-person your strategies for managing stress may need a change-up too.

You may be facing your first in-person exams in two years (or ever), so we asked staff and faculty at U of T Scarborough for their 2022-specific tips on coping with stress in the so-called “new normal.”

Be kind to yourself

Stop expecting yourself to be the same person you were in 2019 it’s unfair, says Danielle Farmer, a counselor and therapist at the Health and Wellness Centre

“You need to lower your expectations for yourself and stop looking for that same perfection,” Farmer says. “We're still in the pandemic and things aren't normal. You're going to have days where you're unmotivated and that's okay.” 

She’s seen many students struggling with imposter syndrome a feeling that you don’t deserve your accomplishments. She often reminds them: “You’re here because the university saw something in you.”

Reflect on the things you’re saying to yourself and try to make that dialogue more positive, she says. Talk to yourself the same way you’d talk to a friend and push back against thoughts you’d never say to someone else. 

“It just opens another window for self-love and positive affirmations.”

A man studying at UTSC.
Help yourself focus by using noise canceling headphones to make anywhere a study space (Photo by Nick Iwanyshyn).

Remember what hasn’t changed 

Anxiety is still a simple biological reaction, with or without a pandemic. The brain’s goal is to keep you alive, meaning it’s always looking for danger and fixating on things that are stressful.

But singing, dancing, laughing and social connection releases hormones that support our wellbeing. Used strategically, these activities make breaks more powerful, says Steve Joordens, professor in the department of psychology.  

“Doing things like going from studying to dancing to a playlist, it is like taking medication. You are counteracting the negative effects of stress,” he says. “Identify those things that put you in a positive frame of mind and then use them in a much more intentional, structured way to give yourself a break from the anxiety now.”

Steve Joordens in a lecture.
Steve Joordens says the best way to manage anxiety is to understand it for the simple biological reaction it is, and know it can't last forever (Photo by Ken Jones).

Strong memories create strong reactions. Pick a playlist you listened to on a favourite trip or stream a movie that made you laugh with Criterion-on-Demand, which offers thousands of films free for students (some movies need only your UTORid, others also need a connection to the U of T wifi network). 

“We can control our own minds through stimuli like that. The things we put in front of our eyes or our ears or our nose can bring our mind to certain places.”

When we feel more in-control of a situation, we tend to feel less anxious. That’s not great news in 2022, but Joordens recommends focusing on the things within your control. Know you can get the marks you want if you do the right things, then find what those things are for you. 

Simplify stress management

There are three basic ways we cope with stress, says Julie McCarthy, professor in the department of management. Emotion-focused coping involves reaching out to others for support, largely by talking about our feelings. Problem-focused coping means using active strategies to solve a problem, while avoidance-focused coping is steering clear of what's stressing us. 

Traditionally, these three methods fit neatly into a spectrum, with problem-focused coping seen as good, avoidance-focused coping as bad and emotion-focused coping sitting in the middle. But the reality is much more nuanced. 

“Coping systems are quite complex, and each of these has a place in the right amount,” says McCarthy, whose research focuses on workplace stress and anxiety. “What's really important is to be thinking about using each of these strategies.”

Julie McCarthy smiling for a photo.
In times of high stress, take a step back and see this exam as one part of your education journey, says Julie McCarthy (Photo by Don Campbell).

It’s unhealthy to bottle up feelings, but too much venting can lead to ruminating. Similarly, too much problem-focused coping leads to burnout while not enough can leave you ill-prepared; avoidance can lead to procrastination, but it’s necessary for restful breaks. 

Balance these by getting involved, says McCarthy. Joining a study group falls under problem-focused coping, while talking to other students about exam stress fills that emotional need. Take a group fitness class at the Toronto Pan Am Sports Centre for some productive avoidance and potential friendships.

“Develop those social connections, because it only really takes one person. It can really go far in easing those feelings of isolation and anxiety,” McCarthy says. “Don't be afraid to reach out.”

For activities off campus, try Scarborough Social Prescriptions, a searchable list of local resources and activities, made to give students an easy way to explore Scarborough solo or in a group (online options are also available).

A photo of the Toronto Pan Am Sports Centre.
The Toronto Pan Am Sports Centre offers group fitness classes for yoga, pilates, cycling, water aerobics and more (Photo by Ken Jones).

Prepare and take care

Farmer says self-care is a lot like studying: cramming isn’t the best way to do it. Adapt strategies you found helpful before the pandemic (Farmer personally found a love of hiking during gym closures) and embrace the basics of a healthy lifestyle.

“Self-care doesn’t have to be elaborate, it can be walking a pet, meditating, eating healthy and getting exercise,” Farmer says.

Sleep well, eat nutritious foods, exercise when possible and know that self-care is a study tool, McCarthy adds. These activities bring the mind to a place where learning and recalling is easier. 

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To prepare for an in-person exam, arrive early, says Umme Thanha, examination assistant in the Office of the Registrar. If it’s your first time writing an exam on campus, find your room in the days or hours before the test. Try checking the 3D campus map, or download a 2D version. Instructors may split larger classes into different rooms by alphabetical order, so check Quercus announcements to make sure you know which room you need.  

“Give yourself some credit, you have worked hard all semester and prepared well for this exam, now one last evaluation and you are all done with this course,” Thanha says. “Think positive thoughts.”

Exam resources

Find more study tools with the Office of Student Experience’s list of exam resources, which includes a range of academic and mental health supports, along with tip sheets and links to more services. Exam Jam, the office’s semesterly support program, also offers modules to help with studying and managing stress. 

You can find exam support from the following services:

Academic Advising and Career Centre for one-on-one or group academic support

AccessAbility Services for help with exam accommodations and accessibility needs

Health and Wellness for same-day counseling, personal and group counseling and mental health care

If you are experiencing an emergency or crisis situation, please reach out to one of these resources: 

- MySSP 

- Distress Centres of Greater Toronto 416-408-HELP (4357) 

- Good2Talk 1-866-925-5454 

- Scarborough Health Network Community Crisis Program 416-495-2891 

- access your nearest walk-in clinic or hospital emergency department 

- or call 911 if it’s an emergency 

For emergency shelters in Toronto: call 311 or Central Intake 416-338-4766 or toll free 1-877-338-3398 

If you have questions about other student mental health related resources, visit