Exams at all levels of education can make people feel stressed and anxious. For people with eating disorders, or who could develop one, exam season can be especially difficult, and people may find their illness worsening.
This page covers some of the feelings and behaviour that stressful situations like exams can cause, ways to manage stress and take care of your mental wellbeing before, during, and after the exam period, and what support may be available from your place of study. There’s also some guidance for friends and family members if you’re worried about someone you know.
In the period before and during exams, you might find yourself or someone you know:
Anyone can react to stress with changes to their eating and exercise habits, but for people with eating disorders, or who might develop one, this can be particularly serious. If you’re worried you or someone you know is developing an eating disorder or relapsing because of exam stress, seek treatment as soon as possible.
If you have an eating disorder, you might find it directly impacts stress levels by, for example:
You might have heard comments that seem to minimise the importance of exams. This might not always feel helpful, especially if your plans for your next steps depend on you getting certain exam results. It’s not that exams shouldn’t feel important to you, but that other things, including your wellbeing, are important too, and it’s healthy for you to make them a priority before and during your exams. Here are some ideas for how you can do this:
Let people know if there are things they can do to help during your exams. Anyone who is supporting you with your eating disorder will want you to both do well and be healthy, and it isn’t imposing to ask them for help.
You could direct people to the guidance for anyone supporting someone with an eating disorder, below, if they’re looking for ways to help.
This can help you to figure out what’s best to prioritise while studying, as well as highlight areas where you perhaps don’t have to worry so much. Teachers and tutors will also be able to help you prioritise. It might help to know:
It’s common for people to put pressure on themselves when they’ve got exams coming up, but people with eating disorders may especially find themselves doing this. Try to give yourself a break, both physically and mentally.
Getting everything ready beforehand will help you get started quickly and keep to your study plans.
There may be changes around your exams that your school, college, or university can or is even legally obliged to make, or extra support they can offer you. Depending on the effect it has on your daily life, an eating disorder can be considered a disability under the Equality Act of 2010. This means your place of study should make any necessary changes to ensure you are being treated fairly and can complete your studies to the best of your ability. These are known as “reasonable adjustments”. Examples of reasonable adjustments it might be necessary to make for eligible students include giving them extra time to complete work, allowing them to take exams in a private room, or allowing them to use a laptop.
Have a look on your school or university’s website for the process for arranging for reasonable adjustments, or talk to a member of staff who can help.
Either in advance or on the day, you might be too ill to take an exam. Depending on your circumstances, you could be allowed to take it later. If you need to miss an exam, let your place of study know as soon as you can and find out what the process is for deferral of assessment – it will vary, although you will probably need to get a doctor’s note.
If you do feel your illness has seriously impacted your ability to complete your work, your place of study may consider you to be affected by “extenuating circumstances” – usually these are defined as circumstances that are sudden, unexpected, outside your control, and seriously disrupt your studies. If your eating disorder has recently developed, or has become worse, speak to your school or university as soon as possible to find out what they can do for you.
All learning institutions should have some form of student support in place. Universities usually offer specific services to support your mental, physical, and academic wellbeing – this might include things like mental health or academic advisors, counselling or disability advisory services, and your university’s medical centre. Your university may also have created online resources, which could be useful if you don’t want to speak to someone about how you feel.
You should be able to find information on your university’s website, but if you’re not sure, you can ask your representatives at your student union, who should be able to point you in the right direction.
If you’re at school, there may be dedicated pastoral services, but all teachers have a duty of care to you as a pupil. If you don’t have a student wellbeing service, talk to a member of staff you trust about how the school can support you during the exam period.
Beat’s support services are also available if you’re looking for somewhere to turn. You can find details of our Helplines and online support groups here.
You might find yourself dwelling on your exams after finishing them, or that the end of something you’ve been very focused on has an effect on your eating disorder. If you’re worried about this happening, preparing for it can help.
Try not to worry about your results too much. Taking exams at the same time as having a serious illness is so difficult, and you should be proud of yourself.
Exams can be daunting, but you can get through them, especially if you have the right support in place. We hope this page will help you think about practical ways to lower your stress and make the exam period easier, but if you’d like some further support from Beat, our Studentline is open every day, and you can also drop into Owl, our student online support group, every Tuesday from 7 – 8.30pm.