Five Tips for Dealing with Exam Stress

Coping with stress takes practice, but it can become a positive habit

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Student holding books under stress.Everyone experiences stress, especially during exams, but how we respond to it can have a positive or negative effect on our health.

“The stress response is considered a part of our survival mechanism and that’s why it’s wired into every human being,” says Kathy Somers, who offers workshops through U of G’s Stress Management and High Performance Clinic.

Some stress can be good because it motivates us to overcome challenges, but “too much stress takes a negative toll on us,” she says. Physical responses to excessive stress include headaches, stomachaches, muscle tension, increased blood pressure and lower immune function.

People deal with stress differently, which makes some people more resilient to it than others. Learning how to cope with stress mentally and physically takes practice, she says, but it eventually becomes a habit that you don’t need to think about.

Resiliency to stress includes lifestyle choices, says Somers, such as eating a healthy diet and getting enough physical activity and sleep.

Resilient people don’t lead stress-free lives, but they know how to handles stress in a positive way. “They have the ability to emotionally calm themselves,” says Somers. She advises people to adopt resilient thinking strategies such as telling yourself, “No matter what happens, I will handle it.”

If you find yourself worrying about something that is out of your control, try to come up with three ways to deal with the situation. “What can I do now to start taking steps to deal with this?” she says. “The resilient person shifts from focusing on the problem to focusing on the action steps they can take to either eliminate the problem, cope with the situation or deal with the problem and move on.”

Somers’ top five tips for dealing with exam stress are:

1) Be familiar with the material, but don’t rely solely on reading your notes and textbooks. “Our retention is very low if we’re simply reading and rereading,” she says. “We might only recall 10 per cent today of what we read yesterday.” Being an active learner involves engaging your brain in different ways. Try drawing diagrams of what you’re studying or charts that illustrate the connections between different concepts.

2) Take a two-minute break every 20 minutes — it’s more effective than trying to study for hours nonstop.  “The human brain performs better if there’s novelty and variety,” says Somers. Get up from your desk, walk around and stretch. Physical activity increases blood flow to the brain and releases neurochemicals that help the brain form new connections, she says.

3) Calm yourself before studying or writing an exam. In her “Stress Less for Tests” workshop, Somers teaches students how to relax their minds and bodies through breathing exercises. Use these strategies during the most stressful parts of an exam, she says, such as waiting for the exam to begin, reading the first question, not knowing the answer to a question and hearing how much time is left.

4) Get enough sleep to help your brain consolidate information. Somers says students may be tempted to maximize their study time by staying up late and waking up early, but that can impair the brain’s ability to learn and retain new material.

5) Reduce your consumption of caffeine and sugar, which Somers calls “false friends” because they produce a temporary spike in energy followed by a crash. “You have much less energy two hours later than if you had not consumed those things at all,” she says. She recommends eating a protein and carbohydrate every three or four hours for fast and long-lasting energy.