Exam stress: What is it and how can I manage it?Teena Clouston, Cardiff University
A little stress around exam time can be a good thing, as it motivates you to put in the work. But sometimes stress levels can get out of hand, particularly at the end of an academic year.
When you become stressed, the sympathetic branch of the autonomic nervous system gets switched on. Initially this is a good thing, because it is the activation of this system that releases the neurochemical adrenaline – and this stimulates you to get going and focus on your work. But the problem starts when periods of stress become prolonged.
When this happens, the sympathetic branch stays permanently on, pouring adrenaline into the body and keeping you on high alert. This causes you to worry more, experience anxiety and depression, lose sleep, become forgetful, irritable, overwhelmed, exhausted and feel out of control. This can really impact on your ability to prepare for your assignments and exams, as well as negatively affect your levels of performance and sense of well-being.
What can you do?
A simple and very practical step is to develop a plan of action by preparing well and organising your time and workloads. This will help address that “out-of-control feeling”. A second step is to begin to understand the physiological responses going on in your body and try to adjust them.
As its name suggests, the automatic nervous system is not under your direct control. But you can learn techniques to help you manage how you are feeling and to relax or calm down. If you can do this, then the second branch of the automatic nervous system, the parasympathetic branch, can switch on.
This branch works in opposition to the sympathetic branch and releases neurochemicals into the body that can support and maintain a sense of calm – facilitating a relaxed and focused state. Practising mindfulness, mediation, yoga, thought stopping and breathing techniques can all help to keep this system healthy and switched on.
Breathing techniques offer a quick and effective method. They are easy to learn and can be practised any time, any place, anywhere – because your breath is always with you. The trick is to learn to breathe deeply by drawing your breath down into the abdomen. This stops shallow breathing which is linked to stress and panicking.
You can try simple breathing techniques and practice them when you feel you are beginning to feel stressed out. You might be surprised about how quickly you start to feel more in control of your stress and anxiety.
What about mindfulness?
Mindfulness is a more advanced technique, focused on being fully present in the moment and experiencing what is going in and on around you as that moment unfolds. When you learn how to do this, you find you are able to focus your attention on the task at hand – in this case your assignments or exams. Mindfulness also helps you to practise feeling calm in the mind and the body by releasing those neurochemicals that switch on the parasympathetic branch of the automatic nervous system.
Studies have shown this can actually enhance your performance and sense of well-being. Try simple mindfulness meditation and practice it at least once a day to give yourself the opportunity to see if it makes a difference. Pay attention to how you feel before the practice and after you practice. This will help you to decide whether it’s an effective tool for you.
What else can I do?
A real positive of all these techniques is that they teach you to become aware of what you are actually thinking at any one time. Thoughts are frequently negative harbingers of failure and fear. Once you are aware of this, you can learn to adjust negative thinking into a more positive stance or to let them flow over you rather than control you.
Balancing how you spend your time is also important. Eating well, engaging in physical exercise, taking breaks from study and getting enough sleep all ensure that your stress levels are kept under control.
You also need to try and balance your drive for performance in your exams and assignments with doing things that are personally meaningful to you in your life. This is important, as research has shown that this is essential to your health and well-being. And it will also help you to feel more balanced and calm during those exams and in the run up to results day.