Stress management for students and school pupils

Blog Post No. 32

8th May 2016 – Updated on 25th April 2021

Copyright © Renata Taylor-Byrne 2016-2021

Renata’s Coaching & Counselling blog: How deep breathing and revision techniques help students get higher grades

Review of a Sunday Times article on stress management for pupils and their parents


At this time of year there are thousands of students of all ages going in for exams of one kind or another. How can they help themselves to handle the pressures they face?

In this blog I am going to do a short summary of an experiment that was conducted over the last three years in an independent girls school, to help students who were preparing for their GCSE exams; and look at the results to see how they could help anyone who was entering an exam themselves.


Revision, Planning and Deep breathing

For the last year, students at Queen Anne’s independent boarding school, in Reading, have been learning all about how their brains react to stress, so that they are ready for their forthcoming exams.

They were shown how planning and revision strategies reduce the sense of panic when they are in the exam room. But they were also taught techniques such as deep breathing and reappraising the importance of the exams.

Pressure from the parents and universities

Why would strategies like this be necessary?

Apparently there was a survey conducted by the Headmaster’s and Headmistresses’ Conference (HMC), which represents schools such as Eton, Harrow, Westminster as well as other independent schools.

Some results

95% of the heads who were polled said: “Visible stress related to exams” had increased in their schools over the last 5 years. And more than half, 56%, said that the biggest cause of the children becoming stressed was the pressure from home. And nearly all head teachers (97%) said that they were now asking parents to come to advice sessions and offering parenting classes to deal with the pressure their children were under, and how to help reduce it.


So, it was in reaction to the increasing stress on children that the head of the school, Julia Harrington, created a 3 year research project to examine how to help the children handle the pressure of forthcoming exams.

“I wanted to make sure the girls stopped being afraid of stress”, she said.

The research focused on teaching the pupils pre-planning for exams plus deep breathing techniques.

Do pre-planning and deep breathing techniques work?

The students attended workshops on mental preparation for their exams and deep breathing techniques, to calm themselves down when necessary.

The school staff found an improvement of up to 2 grades in mock GCSE exams, from December 2014 to January 2016. Abigail Leach, 15, was a student at the school and as a result of the workshops, found that her C grades improved to A’s. She said: “It’s been really helpful…I use deep breathing and also try to put the exams into perspective…they are not the be-all and end-all of life.”

We do not know the proportion of pupils who improved their grades so dramatically, but the author of the article, and the teaching staff, seemed very impressed by the overall effect of the research and teaching strategy.

What can all students learn from the outcomes of this project?

Regardless of the type of school or college, and most pupils do not attend independent schools, I think this research should be taken seriously by teachers and pupils or students, and their parents.

There are two powerful reasons why the techniques taught to the girls at the school were beneficial and led to a reduction in stress in the exam room, with the outcome that they were able to perform better in the exam situation.

Firstly, the techniques they were taught gave them a sense of control over their bodies and minds and this strengthened their ability to handle stress. The stress response is explained to the students, and demystified, and seen and understood to be a predictable, manageable process that can be reduced if they follow certain procedures.


As they learned about their stress response, how it worked and how to handle it, their fear of the unknown would have reduced.

Secondly, if you do deep breathing exercises of any kind, these techniques automatically switch on the ‘relaxation response’ in the body.

This is because the parasympathetic nervous system is triggered by the deep breathing, into secreting hormones in order to decrease blood pressure and heart rate. This is immediately experienced as more pleasurable than the feeling of being stressed, and the learners realize they have the power to create this relaxed feeling as necessary.


It is very sad to read about the increase in cases of self-harm, depression, anxiety and eating disorders among pupils in schools, which has been recorded in recent years. This seems highly likely to be the result of the fact that pressure has been racked up by the Universities, who want to reintroduce a sense of competition for places, and by government policies.

But it’s encouraging to think that some schools are taking stress reduction strategies much more seriously, and seeing that not only do exam preparation techniques and stress management strategies help the pupils, but there is a natural increase in academic performance as children become happier and more in control of their bodies and minds.

Of course, now their parents have to learn to calm down. But that’s not the children’s problem!

Having been in the position of helping students to pass exams  for many years, it’s heart-warming to see teachers taking students stress levels seriously and making space for lessons in stress management, in the school system.

Knowing the value of stress management in my own life, I took the time to study for a diploma in stress management; and I have taught stress management strategies in a variety of contexts for more than two decades.

Today, I prefer to teach stress management strategies on an individual basis, in Hebden Bridge.

That’s all for now.

Best wishes,


Renata Taylor-Byrne


The Coaching/Counselling Division

01422 843629



“Top schools teach fretful parents in bid to ease pressure on pupils”, by Sian Griffiths, Page 8, ‘The Sunday Times’, 17th April 2016


Meditation for stress reduction

Renata’s Blog Post No.6

Written on 7th October 2015.  Posted here on 6th May 2016

Copyright © Renata Taylor-Byrne 2015-16

Renata’s Coaching/Counselling blog: The dramatic benefits of Daily meditation


Meditation-benefits.JPGIn this blog I am going to explain why meditation is really good for you. It’s the mental equivalent of being on a very nutritious and healthy diet.

And it’s better for our bodies than going on holiday, or going shopping –because you feel good for longer and it doesn’t reduce your bank balance!

That’s a big claim, so I’d better explain why I think it’s so good for you. In order to do that I need to get a bit technical.

But firstly, let me clarify what I mean by ‘meditation’: Sitting quietly, clearing your mind of mental chatter, and focusing your attention in the here and now by counting your breaths in and out.  It’s that simple.  But you can always get more guidance on how to do it by consulting our How to Meditate page.***


Mental demands on our energy

Meditation-effects.JPGIn our daily lives, here are some examples of the mental demands we face:

# Starting the day with too much to do and too little time to do it.

# If you are married: Getting the kids dressed, breakfasted and ready for school – and keeping the mobile phone on, so you can be easily contacted

# Other people’s conversations (and problems), and responding to them appropriately

# TV and radio news which always give the bad news first, relentlessly

# If you use a mobile phone: Text messages throughout the day – with good or bad news; and the ever-present threat of a bad/stressing phone call

# Emails waiting for us when we get to work

# Adverts trying to get us to buy things

# If you are a car driver: Other drivers’ behaviour on the roads

# The demands of the job when you get to work

# Your inner dialogue (mind chatter), as you prepare, respond and carry out your daily responsibilities


Have I missed anything out? Probably!

NataCrags005.jpgOur poor brains are deluged with information overload, and the messages don’t stop until we crawl, tired out, into bed, hoping for a decent night’s sleep.

By that time your body has got plenty of stress hormones (cortisol and adrenaline) circulating in it, so the quality of your sleep will be affected by them. That’s the bad news.



The good news: how meditation works

What meditation does is it switches off your stress response, and switches on the relaxation response.

The stress response is a natural, human response to all the daily challenges you’ve been facing. You’ve probably heard it referred to as the ‘fight or flight response’.  Your heart rate and breathing increase; your big muscles tense up to fight or run; your digestive system closes down, to conserve energy; your body/brain fills with cortisol and adrenaline, so it becomes difficult to think straight.

We’ve got 2 nervous systems in our body: the ‘sympathetic’ nervous system, which activates our ‘fight or flight’ response; and the ‘parasympathetic’ nervous system, which switches on when threats to us have passed.  The parasympathetic nervous system is also called the ‘rest and digest’ or ‘relaxation’ response.

These two systems alternate with each other, to keep a balance in the body – a bit like mixer taps for hot and cold water.

Meditation gets your body’s relaxation response activated which means that the feelings of stress drain away and the ‘rest and digest’ mechanisms start to operate in your body.

So your body stops producing cortisol, and switches to the relaxation part of your autonomic nervous system. Your digestion starts working again, your big muscles relax, and mental relaxation and whole-body rest take place.


Breath-counting – recommended by the Buddha:

Begin by sitting quietly, with no external distractions. Switch off the TV or radio. Sit in a room which does not have any human activity going on. And focus your attention completely on your breathing, so that your thinking about yesterday and tomorrow close down.

Counting your breaths over and over for a period of time rests your brain and reconnects you to your body – to the regular rhythms of your breathing. And in this way your thoughts settle down, lose their power to disturb or run you ragged, and become mere thoughts which come and go, like clouds in the sky.

Meditation roots you more powerfully in the reality of your body and your current surroundings and less in the world of your thoughts.

You may quickly feel sleepy when you start meditating – this is a sign that your body needs rest and wants more sleep.


How do you do it?

You sit still, in a quiet place, and slowly start counting your breaths from 1 to 4, over and over again. It’s as simple as that.  Count 1 on the in-breath; 2 on the out-breath; 3 on the in-breath; and 4 on the out-breath.  And repeat.  Slowly, slowly; let your rate of breathing slow down, and relax your body.

For more guidance, see our How to Meditate page.***

I suggest you try 10 minutes a day at first. Ten minutes of peace!

But as you get to feel the effects on your body I would suggest that you build up to 30 minutes a day. That will be really good for your mind and body.

You will be able to feel and experience the benefits for yourself, and may well want to go into the subject of meditation in more depth.

The Buddha recommended counting your breaths, but there are loads of different types of mediation.


Regular practice makes for successful meditation

Why meditate every day? You will only get the full benefits of meditation, and experience them for yourself, if you do it every day, because it takes time to reap the rewards, just like when you start an exercise programme.

Zig Ziglar once said: ‘People often say that motivation doesn’t last. Well, neither does bathing – that’s why we recommend it daily’.

The same applies to meditation.  Daily practice will strengthen your connection to your body, slow down your mind, build up your stamina and lower your blood pressure. The resultant increase in relaxation will mean that when you experience stressful events, you will be meeting them with a more relaxed body/mind. Therefore the stress response will be less powerful and you’ll recover more quickly.

And the only time the brain rests is when we’re meditating!


The benefits of meditating:

Here is a link to a website which has listed 100 of the benefits of mediation:

And here is a more detailed account of how to meditate which my partner, Jim Byrne and myself, wrote some time ago: our How to Meditate page.***

How come such a beneficial technique isn’t more popular?

Well, firstly, you will need to get up earlier in the morning or carve out the time in your daily life, if you want to experiment with it.  And some people don’t like having to do that!

It’s not a quick fix, and some people are not very patient.  Give it time to work. The benefits will be worth the effort.  For examples: people have been able to give up hard drugs, cigarettes, lose weight, change their lives, start exercise routines, etc., through using this very simple technique.

It is also very useful if you have difficulty getting to sleep at night or wake up in the middle of the night, worrying about past or future events. The simple practice of breath-counting will help you get off to sleep more quickly.

That’s all for now. I hope you find this helpful.

Best wishes,


Renata Taylor-Byrne


The Coaching/Counselling Division

01422 843 629