Nic Ford, Head of Bolton School Boys’ Division, Bolton School

Nic Ford is the Headteacher of Bolton School Boys’ Division, a large independent day school in the United Kingdom. He has been teaching for nearly 30 years, with 20 of those working in senior leadership roles in both the UK state and Independent sectors. He has significant experience in developing teaching and learning and the use of technology as a pedagogical tool. He has written for the Times Educational Supplement and has spoken at a variety of conferences around the world on topics ranging from e-safety and teenage mental health to how to lead a sustainable one-to-one iPad programme.  


Schools throughout the northern hemisphere are approaching the final term of the year, and for many students, this means one thing; Examinations!

Examinations are an integral part of the education system and a crucial component of a student’s academic journey. However, sadly, they can also be a source of significant stress for many students that can lead to a range of negative outcomes including anxiety, depression, and even physical health problems. A recent survey by the National Union of Students in the United Kingdom showed that 87% of students feel stressed as a result of their examinations, and a similar study by the Mental Health Foundation found that 75% of teenagers have experienced stress as a result of their examinations. Perhaps most alarmingly, 32% of respondents to that Mental Health Foundation Survey reported suicidal thoughts as a result of exam stress.

Undoubtedly, the pressure to succeed and the fear of failure drive much of these issues of stress and can cause poor mental health for our young people. But the prolonged period of study can also create cognitive overload, which also has the added issue of creating physical health issues, especially of tiredness and exhaustion.  In a recent article in TIME magazine, it was suggested scientific evidence exists to suggest that thinking too hard really can make you tired. The article in quoted research from Pitie-Salpetriere University Hospital in Paris, which found that high-demand cognitive work – thinking- leads to a build-up of glutamate in the prefrontal cortex area of the brain. Managing this excess makes other prefrontal cortex activity, such as planning and decision-making, more difficult, which leads us to favour low-effort, high-reward actions as cognitive fatigue sets in.   This presents as procrastination, perhaps checking social media or other simple tasks that require less effort than the studying you know you should be doing. This then creates further stress as students start to feel ‘behind’ and want to catch up but have reached cognitive overload, and the negative feedback loop is reinforced.  Undoubtedly, managing this stress is vital for students if they are to succeed and remain healthy – but how do they navigate the demands of study and not overloading cognitive functions?

The answer, as counter-intuitively as it may seem, is to rest more.  However, it is important here to distinguish what rest is because it is not just sleeping. Dr. Saundra Dalton-Smith, a medical doctor who wrote “Sacred Rest: Recover your life, renew your energy, restore your sanity”, made the important observation that sleep is not the same as rest. She identified seven different types of rest that we need to adapt to truly thrive in stressful times and situations.

The first type of rest we need is physical rest, which can be both passive or active. Passive physical rest includes sleeping which I’m sure many of our exam-aged students are excellent at.  However, sleeping too long actually can exacerbate stress when not enough time is then available to study – another negative feedback loop!  Alternatively, active physical rest means restorative activities such as gentle running, yoga, stretching or any activity that gently moves students without exhaustion.  This type of rest reawakens the senses and makes the brain much more receptive to studying again, and can be achieved in a relatively short period of time. 

The second type of rest is mental rest.  Our brains need time to recover from hard thinking so it is vital that students step away from mentally tiring activities from time to time.  Making a cup of tea, reading a book or some mindfulness between work or study may help you rest much more efficiently.  By taking regular, short breaks whilst studying students prevent cognitive overload and actually retain more of the information they are studying. The key here is to plan these breaks before cognitive overload kicks in and before the brain become too tired.

The third type of rest we need is sensory rest. Bright lights, computer screens, background noise and multiple conversations – whether they’re in an office, on video calls or on social media – can cause our senses to feel overwhelmed. This can be countered by doing something as simple as closing your eyes for a minute in the middle of the day, but crucially by intentionally unplugging from electronics regularly, and definitely at the end of every day. Keeping devices out of bedrooms is vital for better rest.   Intentional moments of sensory deprivation can begin to undo the damage inflicted by an over-stimulating world and thus make studying easier. 

The fourth type of rest is creative rest. This type of rest is especially important for anyone who must solve problems or brainstorm new ideas. Creative rest reawakens the awe and wonder inside each of us and helps us think more deeply. This type of rest is most simply created by a short walk-in nature and taking the time to admire the beauty around us.  But creative rest isn’t simply about appreciating nature; it also includes enjoying the arts. Students can spend some time sketching as part of their revision, listening to or playing music or simply appreciating art in its many forms.  By allowing some creative output during the stressful exam season, students will find a great way of preserving mental health.

The fifth type of rest is emotional rest, which can also tie in with the sixth which is social rest.  These types of rest are where we force ourselves to first be aware of our own emotions and those of others.  It is learning to switch off, spending time alone or with people who can relax us.  It is important, therefore, for students to differentiate relationships into those that revive and those that exhaust them.  Switching off social media, silencing notifications, spending some time alone, maybe taking a bath or engaging in other restful activities that I have described above will help them take some emotional or social rest.  

The final type of rest is spiritual rest, which is the ability to connect beyond the physical and mental and feel a deep sense of belonging, love, acceptance, and purpose. This, therefore, involves taking a break from the demands of the modern world and connecting with our inner selves.  This could be in prayer or meditation or using a mindfulness app to help reflect on their thoughts and feelings.

By planning and building each type of rest into the busy examination period it is possible to manage the mental and physical health issues associated with this difficult period. By practising all seven types of rest regularly students can maintain their physical, mental and emotional health.  By prioritizing rest appropriately, they can actually become more productive, more focussed and ultimately happier in their daily lives. Our job as educators is to help them navigate the complex world so they can fulfil their full potential.

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