Maintaining a healthy mind and body at exam time: with the Junior Cert and Leaving Cert in full swing there is no doubting the pressure that is being felt in many households around the country. If you are a parent who has teenagers facing junior or leaving cert or university exams then staying calm and helping them through will be your priority over the coming weeks.

Good nutrition and healthy lifestyle habits can easily slide down the list of priorities during revision weeks, panic can set in and home life can become somewhat unsettled and less harmonious!

Here’s 5 simple tips to ease the stress and help your son or daughter through the challenges of the Junior Cert and Leaving Cert.

1. Breakfast is essential: Breakfast is the most important meal of the day as it uses 20% of our energy. After a night’s sleep the body hasn’t had food for several hours and needs the right mix of food and drink to wake up and provide a steady supply of glucose (energy) throughout the day. This ensures consistency in alertness and concentration, skipping breakfast will cause fatigue, irritability and brain fog.

Even if you or the kids are short on time, encourage them to eat an egg on wholemeal toast or a healthy yoghurt and piece of fruit. A bowl of porridge will also provide slow release energy but try to add a teaspoon of seeds or a few nuts for protein. Alternatively a smoothie with spinach, cucumber, banana and blueberries can be made in the blender in less than a minute, handy when running out the door. Again, 5 or 6 nuts will add protein and healthy fats which helps with memory and mood during the day ahead.

2. Water: Hydration while studying is so important. Dehydration leads to tiredness and irritability. Encourage the kids to drink water to keep up concentration levels and not revert to fizzy drinks that are high in sugar and can cause anxiety. Water infused with fruit in a jug in the fridge may encourage more drinking, so perhaps cut up oranges, lemons, strawberries or pineapple, any one or 2 citrus fruits, and perhaps some mint leaves for a hint of peppermint.

2 litres of water a day will ensure optimum hydration and mental functioning. Caffeine has its place but any more than 2 filter coffees or 3 instant coffees will interfere with sleep quality and cause a jittery, anxious feeling which is detrimental to concentration and learning. Tea has less caffeine so 3-4 regular cups shouldn’t cause any detrimental effects if taken in the morning or early afternoon. Energy drinks should be avoided at all costs.

3. Sleep: Good sleep is vital for the memory process and to prevent exhaustion and feelings of hopelessness and irrational thoughts. Concentration is badly affected if less than 8 hours sleep happens on a regular basis. Try not to nag about your kids going to bed, maybe explain that earlier study leaves space for some downtime later, an incentive to get the work done at a normal hour.

4. Diet: If your kids are out at school or college during the day it’s impossible to control their intake of high fat, high sugar foods. Providing a healthy balanced dinner in the evening will make a huge difference to how they feel, especially for providing energy in the evening.

Rubbish food causes erratic swings in mood due to blood sugar peaks and troughs, leaving kids frazzled and angry so try to ignore the tempers and cheeky back chat, and concentrate on giving them good homemade dinners like omelette, chicken stirfry with brown rice, chicken curry or salmon. Remember how to portion the plate, half veg, and quarter protein and quarter slow release carbohydrate.

5. Movement: The  junior cert and leaving cert exams might seem like the most crucial thing, but anxiety increases when one feels tired, rundown and overwhelmed. Exercise is the only way to provide stress relief and release feel good chemicals to improve mood and outlook. Making time just to walk outside for 15-20 minutes has a positive, lasting effect on mind and body especially in terms of motivation, energy and clarity of mind. Get kids to walk the dog, home from school or around the block each day to keep them calmer, and to keep stress levels under control.

Most importantly of all, aim to create an atmosphere of normality at home as much as possible. There’s nothing worse than adding to your kids feelings of stress by displaying excessive symptoms of panic yourself! They will sense your stress and feel it as an added burden.

Try to keep the lines of communication open by listening, reassuring and avoiding the temptation to criticise. Try not to mention tidiness or household tasks, be supportive and talk about other things so they remember to create balance and avoid being overwhelmed.

Blog Post by Michael O'Brien