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How to Cope with Exam Stress

Updated: Jan 30, 2020

Dealing with exam stress can be difficult, so we've put together some sensible advice and tips.

Medical School application tips

Exams are getting closer, and you’re stressed out of your mind. You try not to think about it too much so you don’t panic, but that just means you spend time distracting yourself on YouTube, social media or talking to your friends instead of taking time to learn, and deep down you’re still worried. Or you’re working desperately hard, but you still feel like you can’t get your head around these History dates, this Maths topic, this Chemistry problem, and it’s driving you up the wall. The more stressed you get, the more overwhelmed you feel, and the less confident you are in your ability to do well. Sound familiar?

The period leading up to exams can be very stressful, even for students who are doing very well. Regardless of how much you know about a particular subject, an exam is a situation in which you’ll be marked – judged – for your ability. That’s tough. Adults get stressed about this kind of thing, too – though they often try hard not to show it. The bad news is, you’ll be assessed for your ability many times throughout your life. The good news is, there are many things you can do to cope with stress in those situations. Even better, those methods can help you later in life to deal with all sorts of stress outside of exams – job interviews, business meetings, even disagreements with your friends and family.

But before we can talk about how to mitigate it, we need to understand it – as Master Sun (Sun Tzu, an ancient Chinese general who wrote ‘The Art of War’, a famous treatise on military strategy) said: "Know thy enemy". So:

What is stress?

Stress isn’t your enemy. In fact, for many hundreds of thousands of years, it was our friend, and indispensable for our survival. Stress is a state in which your body is primed for action – instinctive, nervous, impulsive action. When you’re stressed, the body is ready to spend all its energy at the drop of a hat.

This was a useful trait back when our ancestors were used to running away from things trying to eat them. In the Savannah, where something a little like a saber-toothed tiger can jump on you at any moment, it’s useful to be able to spend all your energy, all at once, to run for your life. These instinctive behaviours stick with us to this day. When we have the notion that something bad is imminently going to happen to us – for example when we worry about sitting down at an exam and not doing very well – our bodies still react in the same way, by tensing and using up all our energy very fast.

This is why stress is exhausting – and why it leaves you feeling like you’re half the person you normally are when you’re confident and relaxed. When you’re tired, it’s more difficult to learn, and much more difficult to motivate yourself. So, what can you do to keep your stress levels in check?

Sleep – seriously, it’s important.

The most important thing you can do to relieve exam stress is to sleep – regularly, for long enough. Scientists now understand that sufficient sleep is vital for memory, the immune system, and general health and well-being. When you’re exhausted, you’re less alert, more prone to mood swings and depression, and much more vulnerable to stress – which, as discussed above, makes you even more tired. On the other hand, when you’re well rested, you have more energy, you learn faster, and you feel more confident. So, set yourself a routine – go to sleep, and wake up, at the same time every day. It will make a real difference!

Top Tip: Mobile phone screens emit a lot of blue light, which disrupts the circadian rhythm (this is the inner clock of all the cells in your body, which operates on a 24 hour pattern). This can make it much harder to fall asleep in the evening, especially when you feel worried or anxious. Turning off your phone and avoiding looking at screens for an hour before bed helps. If you can’t do without your phone, almost all smartphones have a ‘Blue Light Filter’ which you can time to switch itself on in the evening. It’ll make your screen look orange at first, but you’ll soon get used to it, and it will help prevent the blue light from your phone keeping you feeling wide awake when it’s time to rest.

After having a good night’s sleep, having a big, hearty breakfast in the morning can also really help prevent your stress level from going through the roof during the day. This is because even if your body starts using up all its resources when you start worrying, you’ve given it a good stock of energy to draw from first thing in the morning.

The miracle of good posture

Try looking at yourself in the mirror and making a sad face. Feel that? Somewhere inside, a little part of you is starting to feel sad – just because you’ve told your facial muscles to make you look as if you’re unhappy. On the other hand, if you make yourself smile and keep it up for ten seconds or so, you’ll start feeling happier. This is partly because human beings interpret emotions by mimicking them (something which is now well-understood by scientists).

The same applies to your posture. If you feel depressed or stressed, your shoulders will slump. You’ll shrink. You’ll make yourself small physically. But try standing up straight, with your legs braced firmly to each side and your hands on your hips in a ‘powerful’ pose, for two minutes. Your shoulders start relaxing. You start feeling more confident, and your stress levels go down.

This was demonstrated powerfully by a researcher at Harvard Business School called Amy Cuddy (check out her Ted Talk for more details – it’s fantastic!). Taking up a confident pose actually makes you more confident. This can be extremely useful just before an exam, if you’re prone to panicking in those situations. Just before the exam, find a quiet spot – in a lavatory, out on the yard, in a changing room – or in your room on the morning before leaving for school – and stand straight with your chin up, legs braced, and hands on your hips, in a power pose for just two minutes. This is all it takes to make the stress hormone levels in your body go down, and your confidence rise. Try it!

A small note on sugar…

It’s no secret that what you eat has a huge impact on how you feel day-to-day, and so in my last tip on how to prevent yourself from becoming too stressed during revision and before exams, I want to tell you about a big culprit in that regard – sugar. Sugar gives you energy, and it can be tempting to eat lots of it when you revise, or at school during the day. Unfortunately, apart from the fact that it’s not healthy in itself, the energy hit sugar provides is very brief. You get a rush for a short time after eating it but because your body uses it up quickly, it’s gone in a flash and you start feeling down – which means you need more sugar to keep up your energy, and so on.

Constant sugar highs and lows can make you very vulnerable to stress. Your mind gets agitated, confused and tired by all these rushes of energy followed by crashes followed by rushes, etc. It’s much better to eat a balanced, healthy diet – this will keep your energy levels up and your mood steady in the face of stressful situations. If you have a sweet tooth like me, fruit are much better than straight-up sugar as found in chocolate bars or sweet drinks – especially citrus fruit, since the Vitamin C they contain helps your body stay healthy and alert. Rather than grab a Mars Bar, grab an apple or an orange – you’ll find you won’t feel like eating the Mars Bar afterwards, and you’ll have done your body and your mood a real service!

Have confidence in yourself!

Last, but not least – have confidence in yourself and your abilities, and don’t be put off by failure. Even failure is valuable, because it teaches what you need to do differently to succeed the next time. This is how human beings learn! I wish you the best of luck for your exams.


Blog Post Crafted by William

Subjects Taught: French, German

Background: Originally from Switzerland, Will graduated from the University of York in 2007 with a degree in Historical Archaeology and went on to complete an MA in Archaeological Research with a focus on Ancient Egypt, also at York. Will has worked for large web firms as well as in the startup sector, and has taken time off to travel within Europe as well as to visit Vietnam and Cambodia. He has a keen interest in languages, history, literature and ancient cultures. In his free time he practises Japanese swordsmanship!



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