Barbara Markway Ph.D.

Living the Questions


Self-Compassion a Vital Key to Dealing with Exam Stress

New research helps explain why self-compassion eases exam stress.

Posted May 08, 2017

University students, especially those in their first year, can find exam time to be one of the most stressful in their lives. For some, the days or hours leading to a big exam can bring about symptoms of anxiety, including a racing heart rate, incessant worry and

© Can Stock Photo / 4774344sean
Source: © Can Stock Photo / 4774344sean

sometimes, panic attacks involving hyperventilation. A recent study by researchers at the University of British Columbia, however, has made a fascinating finding: the key to making it through this difficult freshman year, is self-compassion.

The lead author of the study, Katie Gunnell of the Children's Hospital of Eastern Ontario Research Institute in Ottawa, noted: “"Our study suggests the psychological stress students may experience during the transition between high school and university can be mitigated with self-compassion because it enhances the psychological needs of autonomy, competence, and relatedness, which in turn, enriches well-being." Her research revealed that students who reported higher levels of self-compassion, enjoyed greater vitality and optimism during their first few months at university. She noted that often, a student’s first semester away from home can be difficult because suddenly, family and friends they normally counted on, are miles away.

Moreover, university courses are usually considerably more demanding than high school was – therefore, students may find that they may have to make a much greater effort to pass or receive good grades. Gunnell had previously carried out studies on self-compassion in elite female athletes, finding that self-compassion techniques decrease negative worry and self-criticism, thereby aiding athletes to perform at an optimal level. Gunnell and her team suggest that self-compassion workshops and campaigns be carried out at universities, to help students make the big change in a smooth fashion.

Ideas for promoting self-compassion at the university level include:

Self-compassionate journaling: Students can be encouraged to write in a self-compassionate manner about experiences they have had. Indeed, journaling itself is a proven way to lower stress levels and help individuals obtain mental clarity. It can also help students discover important information about themselves – including the types of situations that can trigger negative thought patterns. The key is to write about or to oneself in the same way they would to a good friend or beloved family member- with kindness and understanding, realizing that we all make mistakes.

Counselling opportunities: Students who find that they are finding it very difficult to deal with university stress on their own, should have sufficient opportunities to obtain guidance from a trained therapist. As Rick Hanson, president of the American College Counselling Association once noted, “We have more people needing services and more people willing to seek services. It used to be that it was the really large universities that were more likely to have waiting lists. But I'm hearing that waiting lists are quite common now."

Mindfulness workshops/sessions: Mindfulness and mindfulness meditation are currently used to deal with the effects of stress on everyone from individuals battling substance abuse, to those trying to overcome eating disorders and even Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Mindfulness can be of great aid in promoting self-compassion because rather than teaching us to ignore painful or worrisome thoughts and feelings, it encourages us to be mindfully aware of them – this enables us to be more self-compassionate with ourselves. At the same time, we learn to avoid being swept away by these emotions, so we can find positive outlets for them. As noted by E Smeet et al in a study entitled Meeting Suffering With Kindness: Effects of a Brief Self-Compassion Intervention for FemaleCollegeStudents, “Greater self-compassion has consistently been associated with lower levels of depression and anxiety… In addition, a number of studies have found associations between self-compassion and happiness, optimism, wisdom, curiosity and exploration, personal initiative, and emotional intelligence.”

Self-compassion workshops: Students should have the opportunity to attend self-compassion workshops, where they can pick up valuable techniques to be kinder to themselves. These include the importance of acknowledging mistakes then letting them go, trying to remain in the present moment rather than rushing through life, learning how important it is to focus on self-growth rather than self-improvement, and giving themselves permission to move on to better things when they make mistakes. There is a wide range of online material available and students can be provided with reading lists on the subject.

Article contributed by Gemma Buckland.

For more information on self-compassion, visit The Self-Compassion Project and follow it on Facebook.


“Don’t be so hard on yourself! Changes in self-compassion during the first year of university are associated with changes in well-being,” by Katie E. Gunnell, Amber D. Mosewich, Carolyn E. McEwen, Robert C. Edlund, Peter R.E. Crocker (doj: 10.1-16/j.aogh.2016.11.032). Personality and Individual Differences, Volume 107 (2017).