How to Deal with Exam Stress: Advice from Scientists

Feeling stressed out during exams is completely normal. In fact, it’s not always a bad thing. A bit of stress can make a person more energetic and efficient. This happens when for example, you have some serious cramming to do the night before an exam. There is also “good” stress which includes falling in love, travelling, going through change, and being a beginner. But a lot of stress, on the contrary, can interfere with exam preparation, decrease efficiency, impair your memory and communication skills. ITMO.News discusses how to manage stress, and what you can and can’t do so that your brain works better during exams.

What happens to your body and brain during exams?

First of all, stress is a protective mechanism we have since prehistoric times. When cavemen felt danger from predators or other phenomena, the brain initiated a response which we now know as “fight or flight”: the muscles contracted, breathing became more rapid and the heart started beating faster in order to give the organs additional energy.

These days, we no longer live in fear of predators. The aspects of our life that bring on stress have changed. Now, danger has taken on a different form which we can not escape from, like work, exams, household problems, economic instability and social tension.

Unfortunately, our brains have not yet developed natural mechanisms to deal with these “dangers”, and still, as before, when we are stressed, our body goes into a “fight or flight” response mode. Have you noticed that after three intense days of exam prep you start to lose your appetite, have crazy dreams, shortness of breath, and during the exam your hands are shaking? That’s the same stress response.

A scientist from Harvard Medical School explained in detail what happens to the brain during stress. When someone confronts some kind of danger, the brain sends information to the amygdala, which is responsible for processing emotions. If the incoming sensations are recognized as dangerous, a signal is sent to the hypothalamus, a small area deep in the brain that acts as a command center. This center communicates with the rest of the body through the autonomic nervous system, which controls involuntary actions: the work of heart, lungs, muscles, and other organs. The autonomic nervous system is divided into two parts, the first part, the sympathetic, works like a gas pedal in the car which starts all of the “engines”, and the second, the parasympathetic works in the opposite way, it acts as a brake. So when there is a serious danger, the hypothalamus activates the sympathetic nervous system. And this is happening faster than the brain has time to realize what the danger is before him: that is why people can sometimes jump out of the way of a flying car and only then realize what happened.

Thus, the body’s reaction to exams in terms of stress happens automatically. However, you can still deal with it, by modifying your lifestyle or tricking your brain into feeling confident.

Tip 1: Forget about exams

Coventry University in the UK actually advises their students to forget about exams! It doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t come to the exam and not prepare! It just means you need to change your attitude towards exams and convince yourself that it’s not a big deal, and relax, taking time to prepare carefully. Then the brain won’t think of exam time as a danger. Moreover, it’s helpful to reformulate in your mind the purpose of exams: it doesn’t have to be “a terrible time that you need to survive even at the cost of death”, but rather “a time when you learn something new that will be useful in the future and change lives for the better”. You can even create a special scenario in your mind: imagine that exams are Death Star and you are Luke Skywalker and you must destroy it, or that exams are the one ring and you are Frodo who must take it up the mountain. Does the hobbit give up? No, not at all.

Tip 2: Don’t drink coffee and don’t binge on chocolate

At the University of Leicester they encourage their students to have a well-balanced diet and to limit consumption of coffee and sugar. Yes, for a period of a couple of hours they actually do increase your level of energy, but after a few days, they can lead to anxiety and excessive excitement. Instead, eat food that digests slowly: cereals, fruits, nuts. Although research shows that moderate intake of dark chocolate (40 grams a day) over a period of two weeks can increase metabolism, and consequently, overall health.

Tip 3: Do some exercise!

Exams are not a reason to stop doing exercise, but in fact to do more exercise! Previously, scientists have found that athletes cope better with stress. For example, one study from Swiss and Swedish researchers interviewed 200 employed adults and discovered that those who regularly play sports have much less stress. Scientists from Karolinska Institutet actually found a reason for this. When you do physical exercise your body gets increased amounts of the protein which serves as a “filter” for the various chemicals that can potentially harm the brain.

Another research, conducted at Princeton University showed that during exercise, the hypothalamus actively produces new neurons, and this region of the brain is responsible for the regulation of stress. Thus, the brain can better cope with stressful situations. And finally, during exercise, the body just spends the energy from that “fight or flight” response, burns off the steam, so to say.

Tip 4: Learn to fall asleep.

Needless to say, the lack of quality sleep is one of the main causes of stress and deteriorating health. Besides, during exams, it is sometimes difficult to fall asleep. So what can you do about it?

  • Create some space between work and sleep, explains Peter Shallard on the FastCompany website. Create some kind of a habit which will signal the brain that it's time to stop being stuck in your own work and relax. This might be watching a video on YouTube or playing music, or taking a bath;
  • A short break of sleep for an hour and a half is just as good as a night of sleep. But it’s better not to overdo this method and only use it in extreme cases.
  • If you can’t fall asleep within 20 minutes, it means that your brain can’t switch into rest mode. In this case, it’s better to get up and try to distract yourself, walk around your room, sing songs, read, or listen to relaxing music until you feel tired.  

Tip 4: Try mindfulness training

Mindfulness is a type of meditation, the meaning of which is to concentrate on what is happening right now. For example, if you’re walking, then you should only think about your walk and the surrounding area, if you’re eating, then you should be thinking only about the food and its quality. Researchers from Cambridge University offered about 300 of its students a semester-long mindfulness skill course. Afterwards they analysed their level of stress during May and June, the exam months. It became clear that those who practiced mindfulness showed a lower level of stress than the cohort that just had standard psychological help from the university’s specialists. Moreover, the researchers found that the overall health of students who practiced mindfulness was better at the end of the semester than that of the control group.

Scientists from UCLA also found that mindfulness improves working memory and reduces the occurrence of distracting thoughts while completing a task. Moreover, participants of the research who practiced mindfulness for two weeks improved their GRE reading-comprehension scores.

Mindfulness training has also been found to lower the level of cortisol, a stress hormone, in the blood. Scientists took a group of medical students and asked them to participate in a four-day mindfulness meditation programme. Blood was taken from the participants before and after the course.

If you want to try this kind of meditation, you can find mindfulness techniques here.

Tip 5: Don’t get distracted on social media

Otherwise, you won’t be able to focus on anything, and will quite possible ruin your memory. While this might all seem pretty obvious, this experiment conducted by scientists at Stanford University will make you think a lot more deeply about the effect of being a multitasker on your brain activity.

Researchers worked with a group of 100 students. Half of them were high multitaskers, they had the habit of constantly flicking to social media and other sites, or watching television while doing something else. The second half were generally much less distracted by social media. All the participants took two tests. In the first test, the groups were shown sets of two flickering red rectangles, and were supposed to say when they changed position. The red rectangles were also surrounded by small blue shapes. The students who were high multitaskers were distracted by the blue images and performed much worse than the students who were low multitaskers.

“Great! But maybe high multitaskers have better memories?” - the scientists thought. So they showed the participants of the experiment sequences of letters that they had to remember. Just like the first situation, the students who were distracted easily by social media did much worse. They also were much slower at completing the task because it was hard for them to concentrate on a new task.

So what can you do about this? Quite simply, put your phone away while you are studying, and switch off any notifications. Within 1.5 hours while you are studying for your exams without your phone, the world won’t burn down without you.

Tip 6: Plan your day and plan your breaks

When you have a plan, your brain realizes that everything is under control. And this forces us to feel more confident. For example, you can tell yourself that before lunch you will answer five potential questions for the exam, and another 10 before the end of the day. And you definitely have to plan breaks. Then you will be confident that you can rest and do whatever you want during those allotted times. This also relaxes the mind and helps you become more focused.


ITMO Exam City

Exam day!

Experts from the University of Leicester suggest:

  • Have a good but moderate breakfast and lunch, remembering not to drink too much caffeine;
  • Try to do something relaxing for the last hour before the exam. Last minute cramming could cloud your ability to remember the overall concepts;
  • Try to avoid fellow students who may increase your anxiety levels by asking what you have or have not revised etc.;
  • At the actual exam, if you can't remember something, think of something else, and maybe the answer will come to you naturally;
  • Don’t pay attention to other students: some of them may have already answered the questions, and that will make you think that you are worse than them. Just focus on your own problem at your own pace.

This way, exams are not scary at all! The main thing is to approach them mindfully and not get into a panic. Everything will be fine, especially in ITMO University’s ExamCity!

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