The science behind exam stress

Stress has impacts on both the body and mind so it is important to maintain your health, especially during exam season, in order to avoid burnout. (Courtesy of Pexels)

Finals season is a stressful time for most and it is fast approaching— multiple exams all on the same day, cramming sessions the night before, and not to mention an overwhelming number of chapters to memorize and make notes for. Have you ever wondered what happens to your body during stressful times such as these? 

Before we dive into some of the ways you can reduce stress, let’s first understand what happens to your body and mind when you feel stressed. 

The fight, flight, or freeze response is the immediate reaction your body produces when it detects a threat. In this case, the threat is your impending exam. During this response, your body ramps up production of the hormone adrenaline as a protective measure against the threat. When adrenaline is released, you may notice your heart beating faster, rate of breathing increasing, feeling more alert, and your muscles tightening. 

The aforementioned changes in your body can be quite beneficial to your studying efforts. You may focus better, find your reaction time is better, and even increase your strength and stamina to be able to continue on with studying. 

Um-Salama Omar, a second-year biomedical science student, says her stress levels are highly course-dependent. 

“If I’m doing well in a course and genuinely understand the content, then I don’t really stress much. I mainly freak out when it’s a course I don’t enjoy and haven’t been doing well in,” says Omar.

Now that we know what happens to our bodies when we’re stressed, let’s take a look inside our minds. 

Effects of stress on the mind include feeling confused, moody, overwhelmed, having trouble making decisions, or even losing touch with friends when stress is high. In other words, stress can make you feel lonely and isolated in the quest to deal with it.

In terms of some tips more directly related to navigating school stress, the following may be helpful to keep in mind: organize your necessary test equipment the night before, underline key words and instructions before you begin writing, and work out how long each question should take you so that you have additional time to check everything over once you finish.

“I’ll say something along the lines of ‘I’ll spend the next 30 minutes hardcore studying then take a break’ or ‘I’ll start exactly at 12:00 p.m.’ then proceed to miss that time. These habits of mine always end with me procrastinating and never getting the work done.”

In fact, a study conducted by the Iranian Journal of Language Teaching Research found that the experimental group in their study, who had been taught time-management techniques, showed lower levels of test-anxiety than the control group who had not been taught any techniques. 

Roxanne Chukwu, a fourth-year educational studies and concurrent education student, says meditation and maintaining a study schedule has been key to her academic successes. 

Omar says that although her study habits have steadily improved, sticking to a study schedule has been difficult at times.

“I’ll say something along the lines of ‘I’ll spend the next 30 minutes hardcore studying then take a break’ or ‘I’ll start exactly at 12:00 p.m.’ then proceed to miss that time. These habits of mine always end with me procrastinating and never getting the work done.”

Mindfulness-based interventions focus on awareness of the present moment, mind-body connection, controlling attention, controlling non-judgmental thoughts, and controlling bodily sensations. A literature search looked at the effectiveness of mindfulness meditation across several studies. The majority of studies examined in the review found significant decreases in anxiety and stress following a session of mindfulness meditation.

“I think TAs and professors should be more upfront about what to expect in the exam to lower the stress and anxiety,” Chukwu says.

Omar similarly believes that reachability and time spent in class on review help greatly in lowering stress. 

“Things like extra office hours and study tips and practice exercises are also super helpful,” says Omar. “I feel like a lot of professors at York actually do these, which I appreciate a lot. It helps alleviate some of that stress.”

So, the next time you feel burdened by the pressures of school, take a second to breathe, remind yourself that it will all be okay, and try your hand at some of the techniques mentioned to quell some of the anxiety you may be feeling.

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By Laura Nuccitelli

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