What Is Stress?
Stress is what you feel when you are worried or uncomfortable about something. This worry in your mind can make your body feel bad. You may feel angry, frustrated, scared, or afraid — which can give you a stomachache or a headache or even make you feel as if you want to throw up.
What is exam stress?
Exam stress is a feeling of pressure that many young people feel coming up to exam/test time. It usually occurs during the revision period before exams and immediately before the exams themselves.
Stress is defined as an individual's response to pressure. A small amount of pressure can be useful to keep you focused during exam time. However, for some students, when they experience too much pressure for a long period of time, it becomes stressful and exam preparation and study seems impossible. It is actually a type of performance anxiety — a feeling someone might have in a situation where performance really counts or when the pressure's on to do well. For example, a person might experience performance anxiety when he or she is about to try out for a school team, or go into an important interview.
Like other situations in which a person might feel performance anxiety, exam stress can bring on "butterflies," a stomachache, or a tension headache. Some people might feel shaky, sweaty, or feel their heart beating quickly as they wait for the test to be given out. A student with really strong exam stress may even feel like he or she might pass out or throw up.
Exam Stress is not the same as doing poorly on a certain test because your mind is on something else. Most people know that having other things on their minds — such as a breakup or the death of someone close — can also interfere with their concentration and prevent them from doing their best on a test.
What Causes It?
All anxiety is a reaction to anticipating something stressful. Like other stress reactions, exam stress affects the body and the mind. When you're under stress, your body releases the hormone adrenaline, which prepares it for danger (you may hear this referred to as the "fight or flight" reaction). That's what causes the physical symptoms, such as sweating, a pounding heart, and rapid breathing. These sensations might be mild or intense.
Focusing on the bad things that could happen also fuels exam stress. For example, someone worrying about doing poorly might think thoughts like, "What if I forget everything I know?" or "What if the test is too hard?" Too many thoughts like these leave no mental space for thinking about the test questions. People with exam stress can also feel stressed out by their physical reaction and think things like "What if I throw up?" or "Oh no, my hands are shaking."
Why do people experience exam stress?
Exam stress is normal and very common. People may experience it because:
- It is often necessary to learn and recall a large amount of information for an exam
- Exams always have an element of uncertainty about them
- You may need a particular exam result to gain entry into another course or career path
What does it feel like?
Some people feel stress more than others, regardless of how confident they are about the topic they are studying.
Symptoms of exam stress include:
- Losing touch with friends and the activities you enjoy
- Feeing extra cranky and low
- Sleeping poorly and struggling to get out of bed
- Difficulty getting motivated to start work
- Having clammy hands or feeling butterflies in your stomach
- Having a racing heart beat or feeling sick
- Feeling confused or having your mind going blank during the tests
These symptoms can interfere with how much you enjoy life, especially around exam times.
What can you do to manage exam stress?
If you're experiencing exam stress, firstly, it's important to try to remind yourself that this is only a small part of your life and won't last forever(even though it might not feel like it at the time!). Below, we've put together a list of study, practical and relaxation ideas that people have told us has helped them to manage exam stress. We've also included some tips on how to deal with stress on exam day!
Tips for Dealing with Exam Stress
Exam stress can be a real problem when someone is so stressed out over a test that he or she can't get past the nervousness to focus on the test questions and do his or her best. Feeling ready to meet the challenge, though, can keep test anxiety at a manageable level.
- Use a little stress to your advantage. Stress is your body's warning mechanism — it's a signal that helps you prepare for something important that's about to happen. So use it to your advantage. Instead of reacting to the stress by dreading, complaining, or fretting about the test with friends, take an active approach. Let stress remind you to study well in advance of a test. Chances are you'll keep your stress from spinning out of control.
- Ask for help. Although a little exam stress can be a good thing, an overdose of it is another story entirely. If sitting a test gets you so stressed out that your mind goes blank and causes you to miss answers that you know, then your level of exam stress probably needs some attention. Your teacher, your school guidance counselor, your parent or CHILDLINE can be useful resources to talk to if you always get extreme exam stress.
- Be prepared. Some students think that going to class is all it should take to learn and do well on tests. But there's much more to learning than just hoping to soak everything up in class. That's why good study habits (see below) and skills are so important — and why no amount of cramming or studying the night before a test can take the place of the deeper level of learning that happens over time with regular study.
- Watch what you're thinking. If expecting to do well on a test can help you relax, what about when people expect they won't do well? Watch out for any negative messages you might be sending yourself about the test. They can contribute to your anxiety. Think positive thoughts, "I've studied hard and I know the material, so I'm ready to do the best I can."
- Accept mistakes. Another thing you can do is to learn to keep mistakes in perspective — especially if you're a perfectionist or you tend to be hard on yourself. Everyone makes mistakes, and you may have even heard teachers or coaches refer to mistakes as "learning opportunities." Learning to tolerate small failures and mistakes — like that one problem you got wrong in the math pop quiz — is a valuable skill.
- Take care of yourself. It can help to learn ways to calm yourself down and get centered when you're tense or anxious. For some people, this might mean learning a simple breathing exercise. Practising breathing exercises regularly (when you're not stressed out) helps your body see these exercises as a signal to relax.
Ideas for exam day
- Think about and prepare what you need to take with you into your exam the night before.
- If you feel yourself getting anxious just before your exam then spend some time focusing on your breathing. Practice beforehand (it could be as you lie down in bed) so that you learn how to slow down your breathing. Breathe in to a count of three and then breathe out to a count of three. Repeat this steadily for a few minutes.
- On exam day, keep away from other people who may be feeling anxious or who may say unhelpful comments that make you feel more anxious.
- When you first sit down to do your exam, take time to slow your breathing and relax.
- Read through the exam paper carefully. Underline key words and instructions. Work out how long you have for each question or section
- Watch out for the wording of questions - make sure that you answer what is being asked
- Work on the questions that you find easiest first
- Aim to have time to re-read answers through and make any changes that are necessary.
The best way to avoid exam stress is to develop good study habits and techniques. For more ideas on how to develop good study habits, read our article on How to be a Good Student.