Understanding Exam Stress

In my therapy practice I regularly deal with students struggling with exam stress. The same problems recur year after year:

• Difficulty sleeping
• Poor concentration
• Emotionally overwhelmed
• Anxiety / Worry / Over-thinking
• Irrational and / or Aggressive Behaviour
• Stomach pain
• Catastrophic thinking

If a student has one or more of these issues, they’ll need some help to manage themselves. Where can they start?

It’s essential to begin by understanding what is happening to your brain, under the specific conditions of ‘trying to study while stressed’. To keep it really simple, you could say that in these circumstances there are two parts of your brain in competition with each other.

The first, associated with studying is the logical part of the brain, situated to the front of the head behind your forehead. It is known as the pre-frontal cortex. This is where we process information, without emotion. We use if for intellectual learning.

The second is the ‘fight / flight’ part of the brain, triggered by stress. It is situated at the back of the head and known as the amygdala. All of our sensory information (what we see, hear, smell, taste, touch) is processed through this centre first to ‘check’ if it is safe. It is like a computer program that is running in the background all the time without us being fully aware of it.

Recent studies have shown that the signal to the prefrontal or learning centre of the brain is temporarily lost when we go into a fight / flight state. Instead the stress state keeps the focus to the survival area of the brain. Remember that survival is the top priority in the body. Feeling threatened will stimulate fight / flight activity. When survival responses take over, rational thought is less important and the signal to this part of the brain shuts down.

When your body goes into fight / flight huge changes occur, including; increased heart rate, shallow breath & adrenaline increase. Added to this you stop producing digestive enzymes in your stomach and mouth and your bowel can constrict. Your bladder may also want to empty. Your neck and shoulders can become ‘locked’ or tight as can your jaw. These changes explain why so many of the symptoms listed above occur when exam stress increases.

In my experience as a therapist some people are more susceptible to the fight/ flight response than others. The reasons can vary from genetics, to exposure to stress and trauma. In the cases where there is a background of trauma, it is best to seek out the services of a professional therapist. Speak to your Doctor or teacher for advice.

If you are studying you need to feel safe, calm and motivated. If you are feeling some stress, this is normal but if it builds up too much you need to get on top of it before it becomes too overwhelming.

So, what can you do to manage exam stress? Below I’ve listed my Top Tips for managing exam stress.

Number 1 – Control your Breathing.

You’ll recall how your body changes in fight/ flight mode. Your breathing and heart rate speed up and you get a spike of adrenaline. When you slow down your breathing you calm your nervous system generally. That’s why meditation teachers have been getting people to use it as part of their practice for thousands of years. There are several simple breathing techniques that I teach for exam stress. If you do them for a few minutes, even in a crises it will help with stress levels. You simply cannot breathe regularly and slowly and remain in a survival state. Breathe slowly and without force with eyes closed for best results.

Number 2 – Move

Your brain and body have evolved to respond to stress by moving. The fight / flight response is a call to action. Unfortunately your brain doesn’t understand that exam stress requires you to sit! By taking action you satisfy your body’s urge to move.

Studies show that short bursts of vigorous exercise are extremely effective. This to me seems natural as it mimics what you would do if you had to run away from a bear. This is how the brain is designed. When you burn off the adrenaline your nervous system will feel better. The added benefit of doing this regularly is that it sharpens your brain for learning. The fitter the body, the better the brain and the calmer the mind.

Number 3 – Visualisation

I’ve been practicing forward visualisations for years and I’m always amazed at the results. It works well with breathing techniques. When you close your eyes and visualise a positive outcome in the future your brain starts to create the emotional state that allows for that possibility. I use it a lot for public speaking. When I practice it before I give a talk, the result is that I feel like I’m having a conversation with one person. It’s easy and enjoyable. The crucial part is this. You have to think about the event that you find stressful while you FEEL good. Your brain attaches huge value to the feeling and starts to move towards it. I get tremendous feedback from students who practice this technique.

Number 4 – Eat clean, healthy food.

Preparing for final year exams is similar to preparing for a sports tournament. A huge amount of energy will be required of you. So it’s vital that you establish a healthy diet. A varied diet with good quality vegetables is essential. You need to get good nutrients into your body so that you can maximise your energy. Good fats, good vegetables, clean meats are all important. Lower your sugar levels slowly as you increase the intake of the other foods and you will improve your concentration and alertness. Drink plenty of water. It helps to clean out the body and your brain loves it.

Coffee and energy drinks can negatively affect some people so I don’t recommend using them. Very often you can get a burst of energy and then a crash which leaves you worse off that before you started.

Number 5 – Sleep

Waking up tired because of poor sleep starts you off on the back foot. An important aspect of sleep is winding down before you go to bed. Stop studying an hour before hand and put away smart phones and TV. Go for a walk to clear your head or do some meditation. There are specific yoga stretches for night time that will also help. Another great way to make your body and mind relax is an Epsom salts footbath, taken for fifteen to twenty minutes.

Also, one of the added benefits of exercise is that your body is tired from it and sleep becomes easier. Finally don’t eat too late and drink calming herbal teas.


So remember, if you are studying for important exams and you’re feeling the pressure, remember that too much stress makes everything worse. You can balance the stress with breathing techniques and exercise, by visualising a positive outcome and eating and sleeping well. If the whole thing is becoming overwhelming make sure to tell a parent or teacher and get some help from a professional. No matter how important you think the exams are, nothing is more important that your health. So keep yourself as calm as you can.

Best of luck to you!


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