BlogWellbeingThe Science Behind Why You Get Stressed Before Exams

The Science Behind Why You Get Stressed Before Exams

The exam’s in twelve hours. You’ve gone over your flashcards, studied the syllabus to a T, and done your practice questions. You tell yourself it’s going to be alright — but why is your heart racing? Exam stress — so how do you cope with it?

It’s one of the most uncomfortable feelings in your high school experience, and it can manifest even if you’ve properly studied all the content! 

The best thing to know is that this is completely normal. Feeling stressed can be normal, healthy and even helpful depending on the situation, psychologist and school counsellor Kara Binstadt says. 

So let’s get into why exam stress occurs and how you can cope with it!

The Science Behind Exam Stress
3 Exam Stress Tips on the Day Before the Exam
Advice for the Day of the Exam

The Science Behind Exam Stress

Knowing why we get stressed before exams can give us rationale and self-awareness for when it happens. 

When your body senses danger, real or perceived, it releases stress hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol that cause short-term physical changes, Kara explains. This often happens before an upcoming exam.

These hormones increase your heart rate to pump more blood into major muscles, increase your breathing to send more oxygen around the body and muscles can tense up, ready to make a run for it. 

The levels of stress can be visualised as a bell curve.

Bell Curve

A moderate amount of stress gives us the best performance! But, what does a normal amount of stress feel like? 

The physical symptoms can come up as stomach aches, headaches, muscle tension, rapid breathing, fast heartbeat, sweating, shaking, dizziness, frequent urination, diarrhoea, fatigue, or a combination of these symptoms. 

The emotional symptoms can manifest in feelings of impending doom, panic or nervousness, difficulty concentrating, irrational anger, restlessness, or a combination of these symptoms, especially in social settings. 

Stress becomes an issue (i.e. is too high) when it becomes too difficult to manage and you are unable to cope or perform everyday tasks, says Kara. An example of this is not being able to get out of bed and go to school. 

If you are having difficulties completing everyday tasks due to stress, you can always reach out for professional help. 

How to Cope With Exam Stress - Quote

Not feeling okay and are looking for support networks you can reach out to? Check out our list of mental health support services.

3 Exam Stress Tips on the Day Before the Exam

Every person who cares about their exam will experience levels of stress, Kara tells us, but this stress is usually manageable. She tells us that there are three tips you can incorporate to cope with your stress on the day before the exam.

Tip #1: Review your notes

First and foremost, Kara says that preparing and knowing the content of the upcoming exam is essential to exam stress because it’s typically the outcome of the exam that is important to us. Studying improves our chances of getting a good exam mark and can therefore reduce our stress levels; and on the other side, procrastination can lead us to feel guilty and increase our stress. 

Here’s what we suggest you do before any major HSC exam to maximise your marks!

There are also a few great ways to improve your study performance: 

  • Having a designated study space: If you are not working, move away from the area. 
  • Remove devices from your study area: Research shows those who study with social media and apps in the background receive lower grades than those who don’t.
  • Study in 20 minute blocks: Plan out your studying in small achievable goals. Move away from your study space and come back to study for another 20 minutes. If you’re having troubles getting started on your revision, start with an easy task first to ease yourself into it. 
  • Plan rewards for your breaks: Study for 20 minutes and reward yourself with a cup of tea, a cuddle with a pet, listen to a favourite song, eat a piece of fruit or have a quick chat to a family member.

Tip #2: Look after yourself, be kind and gentle to your body

Looking after your body and mind is the foundation to doing anything well and feeling well. 

Drink plenty of water, eat nutritious meals and do some physical activity, even if it’s a 20 minute walk or some yoga stretching. Consider practicing some mindfulness. A great free application for mindfulness is the Smiling Mind app!

There are other apps for meditating which you can check out!

Tip #3: Get a good night’s sleep

Sleep is critical, Kara says. It allows us to cope with exam stress, be resilient and also consolidate learning into memory. 

For a good night’s sleep, avoid going on any digital device two hours before bed — the light in our devices can activate wakefulness hormones in the brain that tell us to wake up!

Of course, avoiding caffeine is preferable as it makes us feel awake and increases our stress levels. But also, try not to study on your bed as it conditions our brain to associate our bed as an exciting place, rather than a place for sleep.  

Learn about what the right amount of sleep is and find out if you’re getting it!

Advice for The Day of the Exam

So, the day of the exam has come. You’re waiting outside the examination hall and you feel those stress levels rising. To reinforce the positive stress-relieving tips you’ve incorporated the day before the exam, there are also three things you can do to cope with this exam stress.

Firstly, repeat helpful positive affirmations to yourself. Say ‘I’ve got this’, ‘I’m going to do well’, or what words resonate with you.

Ground yourself in the present moment; there are many great techniques such as noticing 5 things you can see, 4 things you can feel, 3 things you can hear, 2 things you can smell, something you can taste.

Lastly, breathe. Big, slow breathing can slow your heart rate — imagine breathing in the scent of your favourite flower and then blowing out the candle on a birthday cake. 

Remember it is only an exam and not the end of the world, even though your body might tell you differently. 

Wondering what the biggest causes of stress are in students? Discover some important statistics about things that cause students stress.

Lynn Chen is a Content Writer at Art of Smart Education and is a Communication student at UTS with a major in Creative Writing. Lynn’s articles have been published in Vertigo, The Comma, and Shut Up and Go. In her spare time, she also writes poetry.

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