In this article, we explore the difference in healthy stress and unhealthy stress, how our current exam system may well be aggravating stress levels, as well as the line between stress and mental health conditions and how the two relate to each other.

With many schools and colleges starting to introduce GCSE and A Level mock exams to their students, discussions have turned once again to the level of stress students are put under to perform well in these exams.

With the intensity of the tests increasing each year, it’s safe to say that the levels of stress are on the rise for these young minds too.

But is this stress a natural motivator, or are we pushing students to the point of toxic stress levels that could cause mental health problems to develop?

Well, according to a report by TES Global, support company Childline delivered 2,795 counselling sessions for exam stress between 2018 and 2019.

We ask what is the difference between healthy stress, toxic stress, and mental health conditions?

One third of these sessions took place during the exam season months. The most common age for students to seek this help was between 15 and 16, with girls five times more likely to ask for help than boys.

How can you identify ‘toxic stress’?

Although the terms ‘stress’ and ‘anxiety’ are often used interchangeably, they are very different medically.

Stress is a natural response to present threats. Whether this is pressure at work, home, or school, this current pressure causes adrenaline to be released and cause a feeling of stress. This is a natural reaction in a short-term scenario.

However, too much stress or having the chemical adrenaline linger in the bloodstream for too long can cause anxiety to develop. Anxiety brings a whole host of symptoms with it, including sickness, panic attacks, and dizziness.

Anxiety continues to pressure a person long after the pressure-causing event has gone. This can be caused by an internal chemical imbalance, hence the prolonged effects even without a current, identifiable event causing the feelings. This in and of itself can prove upsetting for an individual with anxiety, as they feel there’s no observable reason for them to feel like this.

To summarise, stress is a response to an immediate, present threat or pressure. Anxiety is usually longer lasting, and often deals with concerns of the future; it is a response to hypothetical, potential pressures to come. Where stress is a response to a currently occurring issue, anxiety has been considered as an intolerance for uncertainty.

Can stress be embraced?

Healthy stress is temporary, and it can indeed be beneficial. It is born out of our fight-or-flight instinct, where present threats or pressures took the form of predators more than academic performance!

Feeling stressed before an exam is normal. The adrenaline is all part of the body and brain getting ready to perform. It is important that students are aware that a little stress is nothing to fear. It’s normal, and it’s helpful. With a healthy, manageable level of stress, people often perform well.

Of course, the key element here is ‘manageable’. When this healthy burst of stress builds and spirals out of control, affecting areas of life outside of the exam hall, then it most certainly isn’t helpful, nor is it healthy. If a student finds themselves feeling stressed outside the exam hall, and that that stress is impacting home life or classroom behaviour, it’s time to look at the issue from the viewpoint of anxiety.

How can you combat this?

A jittery feeling and nerves before an exam are one thing. But when that worry lingers long after you’ve left the exam hall and starts to extend out into future ‘what if’ scenarios, that’s when anxiety could be developing. Often, anxiety is characterised as a feeling of ‘doom’ in these future worries. The worst-case scenario is, in the throes of anxiety, suddenly a fact rather than a hypothetical. With this in mind, how can schools provide for students in order to ensure stress remains at healthy, short bursts and not a lingering, damaging, and often harmful condition?

Anxiety’s damage comes in how it lingers and gets tangled into everything. Often, people suffering from anxiety note that little to nothing seems enjoyable anymore, as there’s something in everything they do that makes them worry more or their feelings of anxiety are so overwhelming that they cannot focus on anything else. Simply ‘taking their mind off it’ isn’t possible.

How can schools help?

Schools colleges can provide a number of methods to help their students in the run up to their exams:

  • Remind students that exams are important, but they are not the most important thing in life. — We’re not saying tell your students the exams don’t matter; of course they do. But make sure the scale is realistic. You want, and expect, them to do their best. Achieving good results here will build a great foundation for their lives. But remind them that a failed exam will not mark them for the rest of their lives, nor will it be the defining of them: let them have a chuckle at some of Jeremy Clarkson’s tongue-in-cheek tweets each year during exam season, such as “If you’re a level results are disappointing, don’t worry. I got a C and two Us, and I’m currently on a superyacht in the Med.”
  • Encourage achievement, but avoid undue pressure. — Particularly for high-achievers, the pressure to perform perfectly in exams can be a lot to handle. These students can feel that they not only need to achieve the grade for themselves, but for their parents and teachers or they will risk letting them down. Many may feel shocked or ashamed if they gain a grade 8 in their exam when they were ‘expected’ to get a grade 9. Assure them that this top-tier grade is still that: a top-tier grade, and more than enough to see them on to future success!
  • Arrange stress-buster sessions. — Learning how to handle and manage stress is a vital skill. Particularly at school, students will probably be thinking of their upcoming exams while in the classroom revising. It can feel like there’s no escape, so be the one to release that pressure valve on stress with an occasional stress-busting lesson instead of intense revision. Whether this is with a puppy-hugging day to look forward to as a special reward for working so hard, heading out to the school garden with a trowel and some mulch for some relaxing plant-attending, or even a one-off lesson of stress-busting techniques like breathing exercises and mindfulness, treat stress-management as a lesson and exam technique just as vital as going over those notes and books again.

What can parents do?

There are a few things parents can do if they suspect their child is suffering high levels of exam stress or full-blown anxiety:

  • Teach them to relax between exams. — Treat days out, as well as reminding them that a day off studying isn’t wrong, can go a long way to managing stress down to those healthy short bursts and not a prolonged, weeks-on-end pressure. Assure them that rest days in studying are beneficial and will actually help them retain more of what they have revised. Get them out of the house for a bit, and don’t make them feel guilty for it!
  • If you suspect your child is under too much stress or suffering from anxiety, consider medical advice. — A mental health problem is, by and large, chemical in nature. It is long past due that it lost its taboo, particularly among parents and children. The brain is an organ and, like any other organ in the body, for some people it may not produce the right amount of a necessary chemical. If your child’s stomach didn’t produce the chemicals it needed to be healthy, it would be a trip to the doctor to find out what to do next. It’s no different for matters of the brain and its chemistry — if you suspect you child has a mental health problem at play when it comes to dealing with and processing stress, do not be afraid of approaching a GP.
  • Do say positive and constructive things! — By constructive, we don’t mean ‘you should study more’ or ‘your big brother studied 14 hours a day for his exams!’. Again, comparisons are not helpful; everyone studies differently. Some people take in information best in an eight-hour-study-party then a day off, where others study best in multiple 20 minute bursts with a short break in between. By all means, offer strategies you found helpful, but don’t present them as the ‘correct’ way compared to what they are already doing. Also, be sure to remind your child that while the exams are important, they are not completely life-defining; assure them that even if the exam doesn’t go well, there are so many options to re-sit or re-evaluate. One failed exam will not bring their hopes and dreams to a halt.
  • Let them vent and listen. — Sometimes, you don’t need to say anything. Sometimes, we just need someone to listen to our deepest fears and worries. Let your child vent their concerns, particularly after the exam, and don’t criticise them as being over-dramatic or needless in these fears.
  • Do not say ‘we just dealt with it in my day!’ — When anyone has a problem, the last thing they want to hear is how someone else has it worse. A problem that is causing someone to suffer doesn’t lose value just because someone else has suffered more! In particular, no child appreciates their parent indirectly telling them that they don’t have it as hard as their parents did. Saying you, or their siblings, ‘just got on with it’ isn’t helpful at all, nor it is wholly accurate. Exams such as GCSEs have changed a lot in recent years, and it’s not possible to accurately compare your secondary school exam experience with your child’s. Many 16-year-olds could have as many as 28 exams to sit, and that number doesn’t look any less intimidating by being told ‘everyone else managed in my day!’

You may also be interested in these articles:

Sponsored Video


Upcoming FE Events

Advertiser Skyscrapers

Newsroom Activity

FE News: The Future of Education News Channel shared a video in channel. 2 hours 22 minutes ago

Is this the most technologically advanced...

Graduates Honoured with Holographic Commencement Speakers in #VR & In-person, Outdoor Celebration with Zoom attendees on video wall.Thunderbird...

FE News: The Future of Education News Channel shared a video in channel. 3 hours 20 minutes ago

Announcing vGHC EMEA

Join us for our first-ever Virtual Grace Hopper Celebration (vGHC) in the European, Middle Eastern, and African (EMEA) region, which will be our...

FE News: The Future of Education News Channel shared a video in channel. 3 hours 24 minutes ago

vGHC Closing

Latest Education News

Further Education News

The FE News Channel gives you the latest education news and updates on emerging education strategies and the #FutureofEducation and the #FutureofWork.

Providing trustworthy and positive Further Education news and views since 2003, we are a digital news channel with a mixture of written word articles, podcasts and videos. Our specialisation is providing you with a mixture of the latest education news, our stance is always positive, sector building and sharing different perspectives and views from thought leaders, to provide you with a think tank of new ideas and solutions to bring the education sector together and come up with new innovative solutions and ideas.

FE News publish exclusive peer to peer thought leadership articles from our feature writers, as well as user generated content across our network of over 3000 Newsrooms, offering multiple sources of the latest education news across the Education and Employability sectors.

FE News also broadcast live events, podcasts with leading experts and thought leaders, webinars, video interviews and Further Education news bulletins so you receive the latest developments in Skills News and across the Apprenticeship, Further Education and Employability sectors.

Every week FE News has over 200 articles and new pieces of content per week. We are a news channel providing the latest Further Education News, giving insight from multiple sources on the latest education policy developments, latest strategies, through to our thought leaders who provide blue sky thinking strategy, best practice and innovation to help look into the future developments for education and the future of work.

In Jan 2021, FE News had over 173,000 unique visitors according to Google Analytics and over 200 new pieces of news content every week, from thought leadership articles, to the latest education news via written word, podcasts, video to press releases from across the sector, putting us in the top 2,000 websites in the UK.

We thought it would be helpful to explain how we tier our latest education news content and how you can get involved and understand how you can read the latest daily Further Education news and how we structure our FE Week of content:

Main Features

Our main features are exclusive and are thought leadership articles and blue sky thinking with experts writing peer to peer news articles about the future of education and the future of work. The focus is solution led thought leadership, sharing best practice, innovation and emerging strategy. These are often articles about the future of education and the future of work, they often then create future education news articles. We limit our main features to a maximum of 20 per week, as they are often about new concepts and new thought processes. Our main features are also exclusive articles responding to the latest education news, maybe an insight from an expert into a policy announcement or response to an education think tank report or a white paper.

FE Voices

FE Voices was originally set up as a section on FE News to give a voice back to the sector. As we now have over 3,000 newsrooms and contributors, FE Voices are usually thought leadership articles, they don’t necessarily have to be exclusive, but usually are, they are slightly shorter than Main Features. FE Voices can include more mixed media with the Further Education News articles, such as embedded podcasts and videos. Our sector response articles asking for different comments and opinions to education policy announcements or responding to a report of white paper are usually held in the FE Voices section. If we have a live podcast in an evening or a radio show such as SkillsWorldLive radio show, the next morning we place the FE podcast recording in the FE Voices section.

Sector News

In sector news we have a blend of content from Press Releases, education resources, reports, education research, white papers from a range of contributors. We have a lot of positive education news articles from colleges, awarding organisations and Apprenticeship Training Providers, press releases from DfE to Think Tanks giving the overview of a report, through to helpful resources to help you with delivering education strategies to your learners and students.


We have a range of education podcasts on FE News, from hour long full production FE podcasts such as SkillsWorldLive in conjunction with the Federation of Awarding Bodies, to weekly podcasts from experts and thought leaders, providing advice and guidance to leaders. FE News also record podcasts at conferences and events, giving you one on one podcasts with education and skills experts on the latest strategies and developments.

We have over 150 education podcasts on FE News, ranging from EdTech podcasts with experts discussing Education 4.0 and how technology is complimenting and transforming education, to podcasts with experts discussing education research, the future of work, how to develop skills systems for jobs of the future to interviews with the Apprenticeship and Skills Minister.

We record our own exclusive FE News podcasts, work in conjunction with sector partners such as FAB to create weekly podcasts and daily education podcasts, through to working with sector leaders creating exclusive education news podcasts.

Education Video Interviews

FE News have over 700 FE Video interviews and have been recording education video interviews with experts for over 12 years. These are usually vox pop video interviews with experts across education and work, discussing blue sky thinking ideas and views about the future of education and work.


FE News has a free events calendar to check out the latest conferences, webinars and events to keep up to date with the latest education news and strategies.

FE Newsrooms

The FE Newsroom is home to your content if you are a FE News contributor. It also help the audience develop relationship with either you as an individual or your organisation as they can click through and ‘box set’ consume all of your previous thought leadership articles, latest education news press releases, videos and education podcasts.

Do you want to contribute, share your ideas or vision or share a press release?

If you want to write a thought leadership article, share your ideas and vision for the future of education or the future of work, write a press release sharing the latest education news or contribute to a podcast, first of all you need to set up a FE Newsroom login (which is free): once the team have approved your newsroom (all content, newsrooms are all approved by a member of the FE News team- no robots are used in this process!), you can then start adding content (again all articles, videos and podcasts are all approved by the FE News editorial team before they go live on FE News). As all newsrooms and content are approved by the FE News team, there will be a slight delay on the team being able to review and approve content.

 RSS IconRSS Feed Selection Page