Picture the following …

It’s the Miocene epoch and you’re in a steamy swamp, dragonflies the size of lacrosse sticks thrumming past your head, and the trees around you alive with the sounds of prehistoric insects and birds. You gingerly step through the soupy water, the stench of vegetal decay in your nostrils, and the humidity hugging your skin like the cloying, unwanted advances of a tribemate.

Suddenly, there’s a crackling of wet branches to the right of you. Something is moving through the undergrowth. Something huge.

Perceiving the threat, your body kicks into gear, preparing you for fight or flight. Your brain’s hypothalamus triggers the alarm, prompting your adrenal glands to flood your body with adrenaline and cortisol, elevating your heart rate, blood pressure, and energy and suppressing all non-essential functions like your immune, digestive, and reproductive systems.

Saturated with energy and stress hormones, your body is transformed. You are faster, stronger, more agile, and ready to face or escape danger. But the toll this stress response has on your body is considerable.

A city with skyscrapers

Fast forward to today’s high-octane, relentlessly demanding, and fast-paced world.

The environment has changed dramatically since the Miocene epoch. The soupy swamp has now become a concrete jungle and the dragonflies are now helicopters. Saber-toothed tigers are no longer a threat to our survival. And yet, chronic stress has become a way of life (and, unfortunately, death) for the vast majority of the planet’s inhabitants.

This is because the body doesn’t distinguish between minor and major threats. A missed deadline or a looming exam releases the same cocktail of stress hormones into the body as a stalking predator. Therefore, as a student burdened with exam stress, you are at a particular risk of being compromised by your body’s primordial responses.

A suppressed digestive system may once have tipped the odds of survival in your favor, but today, it just leaves you crampy and constipated. Similarly, a suppressed reproductive system leads to all kinds of disappointments in the bedroom. And that’s just two of many impacts that chronic stress has on the body.

In this article, we’ll help you deal with exam stress (or any stress for that matter) by understanding, mitigating, and even using it to improve your performance and prevent burnout.

Here's Brainscapes 9 steps to understand exam stress, cope with it effectively, and use it to help you excel.

Let's dive in.

Students and exam stress: the struggle is real

Stress doodle to alleviate exam stress

In his book Anxiety in Schools, psychology professor Jerrell Cassady notes that between 25% and 40% of students experience exam stress to some extent.

You see? The struggle is real ... and you’re not alone!

The problem for students is that stress can inhibit activity in the brain’s hippocampus, which prevents the formation of conscious, deliberately learned long-term memories. This can be a substantial handicap when studying for an upcoming exam.

What’s the solution?

We here at Brainscape have found through extensive research and surveys of our student users that the most effective approach to combating exam stress is holistic management.

Examine your stress to understand it, develop an actionable plan to minimize it, use a coping mechanism that works for you (exercise, meditation, journaling, or actual therapy), and above all: study intelligently and prepare adequately for your exams!

Ultimately, nothing will relax you before an exam quite like being prepared to write it.

Steps to recognize and understand exam stress

Here’s our step-by-step guide to recognizing and dealing effectively with exam stress.

Step 1. Reflect and unpack

Man sitting in front of mountains and lakes

Stress is an insidious and sneaky opponent. You may not know just how stressed out you are until you either have a complete meltdown or blow a disgusting amount of money on something you don’t need in a bid to “make yourself feel better.” #EarlyMidlifeCrisis.

To really understand the nature of your stress, you’ve got to take some time out to introspect, even meditate on it. What’s upsetting you? Is it exam stress? Are things difficult at home? Are you struggling financially? Is it all of the above?

You can even write in a journal or talk to a friend, family member, or professional in an effort to figure it out. What’s important is that you identify your stress and its root causes. But try to do this in an objective fashion, as though you are an outsider to your problems.

Step 2. Chase stress down the rabbit hole

Sleeping fox on a tree

Once you’ve identified a stressor, chase it down the rabbit hole. Follow it through the winding warren of your subconsciousness by continually asking "why" or "who cares?":

Why are you stressed about exams?
"I’m afraid of failing."

Why are you afraid of failing?
"There’s so much to study and I’ve left it too late."

What happens if you fail?
"I’ll get a bad grade."

Okay, that sucks but what’s so bad about that?
"It’ll bring my GPA down."

Then what?
"Well, then I won’t graduate with the marks I wanted."

Why does that matter?
"My parents will be disappointed. Maybe I’ll have to settle for a lesser job or school. My peers won’t respect me as much."

NONE of these consequences matter that much in the grand scheme of things.

Your peers can take a long walk on a short pier, and your parents will get over it. Besides, you’re learning for yourself and to advance your own life, no one else’s. One failed test or even one failed year is not going to trip up your life’s ambitions if you are ambitious and apply yourself.

By chasing your stress down the rabbit hole, you will eventually corner it and get to see it for exactly what it is—a scared little rabbit, not some monster you should be afraid of.

Step 3. Get perspective on your situation

Snow globe on top of a trunk

As we saw in the above example, chasing exam stress down the rabbit hole reveals the anticipated consequences you are stressing about, absolutely NONE of which are life-threatening. Failing or performing poorly in one exam will not set you back so far that you cannot recover. You can always rewrite an exam and/or study harder in the future.

So, armed with a more intimate understanding of your exam stress—or any other stressors in your life, whether social, professional, or financial, etc.—try to gain perspective on your situation.

Does this really matter in the grand scheme of things? Probably not. More importantly: can you recover with a bit of hard work? Yes.

Then, in the immortal words of Disney princess Elsa: LET IT GO.

Besides, future jobs or grad schools evaluate you for much more than just your grades or test scores. Grades matter but not nearly as much as you think!

Steps to soothing your exam stress

Now that you’ve identified all the little and big things that are stressing you out, let’s look at how you can mitigate, overcome, or even redirect that stress to improve your performance.

Step 4. Put it on paper

Brainstorming with paper to mitigate exam stress

Write down what’s stressing you out and then think long and hard about which of those things are in your control and which aren’t. Be specific when creating your list—say “I am stressed because … ”—and unpack major stresses into their constituent worries.

This action alone can be enough to take the distracting, corrosive thoughts out of your brain and put them onto paper. Here, they are revealed for what they most often are: a fear-stricken rabbit tearing around your brain, knocking orderly stacks of information over, and causing havoc.

If, however, the worries are slightly more malignant than that, it’s time to address them.

It’s time for a plan of action.

Step 5. Create a plan of action to deal with the problem

Plan of action to prevent exam stress

For the problems that are in your control, come up with an actionable plan to alleviate the stress they’re causing. Take a step-by-step approach to address the root cause of the stress, starting at a high level and reducing it to small, manageable steps.

For example: I’m stressed about my big physics exam coming up next week.

Solution: Study hard to prepare. Maybe your plan will look like this:

  1. Curate a distraction-free study space in your home.
  2. Create a detailed study schedule to plot out the topics you need to cover between now and your exam.
  3. Spend one hour per day learning new material.
  4. Spend 10 minutes per day revising old material (Braincape’s adaptive flashcards are a super convenient tool for this).
  5. Sacrifice an hour of Netflix every night for sleep.

... and so on.

Similar to the art of making to-do lists, simply having a tangible path to your goal (or easement of stress) is enough to reduce your anxiety, since often the biggest root cause of anxiety is uncertainty.

For a detailed read on setting yourself up for study success and avoiding procrastination, check out Brainscape’s ultimate guide to getting motivated.

Step 6. Bring in the heavy artillery: use Brainscape to study smart

Brainscape flashcard app on phone and laptop
Brainscape helps you learn efficiently so you can feel confident and lower your exam stress.

We’re not including this step as a shameless plug for our totally awesome flashcard study platform. Okay, maybe a little bit. But we’re also including it because Brainscape was specifically tailored in accordance with key cognitive learning principles to empower students to study more efficiently for their exams.

In other words: you learn twice the knowledge in the same amount of time as traditional study methods.

By its very nature, Brainscape breaks big, scary learning goals down into long-term, medium-term, short-term, and very short-term goals, in the form of flashcard collections, decks, and cards. You can make the flashcards (or find flashcards) upfront so that they are ready for you to tackle in as short or long of a study session as you like.

[Check out Brainscape’s guide to making and using flashcards to study.]

What this approach does is refocus your attention on manageable short-term goals, rather than stressing about the challenge as a whole: acing your exam.

In Brainscape, all you need to worry about is finishing this 10-flashcard "round" of studying. And then the next one, and the next one, and the next ... until you’ve taken that 0% mastery score all the way up to 100%.  Hitting such small, frequent milestones will generate a constant stream of endorphins that will keep your stress levels down.

Checkpoint screen on brainscape flashcard app
Brainscape tells you how much longer you need to study so that you can keep your stress levels down.

In addition to delivering study sessions in manageable bite sizes, Brainscape helps you identify which aspects of your subject you struggle with the most. Through our intelligent algorithm, Brainscape repeats the flashcards you need to review in just the right spaced intervals, so (1) your problem areas are addressed and (2) you don’t waste any time reviewing information you’re already comfortable with.

This is just the tip of the iceberg. To learn more about how Brainscape supercharges, hyper-focuses, and doubles the efficiency of your studying, click on the link! We also have some great articles on good study habits and the best tactics to cram at the last minute that you might find helpful.

Step 7. Reroute your emotions and get psyched!

Lemur celebrating

Holy crap, you’re about to take the biggest exam of your life! Look how far you’ve come! You’ve achieved amazing things to get here: you’ve gotten up early every morning, slogged your tired butt to class, completed the assignments, written the tests, and tolerated your professor’s spit missiles.

This is the final test!

This is what you’ve been preparing for!

These are the positive emotions you should be focusing on; not your exam stress. You’re on the cusp of graduating to the next phase of your life, whether that’s college, getting a job, or qualifying for a job promotion ... and that’s exciting!

In the brain, fear and excitement are closely intertwined, so it’s not too much of a stretch to reframe your fear as excitement and get yourself psyched! It turns that excitement can often be a better weapon against stress than relaxation.

Step 8. Get active and exercise

Kids playing football

In his book Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain, Dr. John J. Ratey, associate clinical professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, writes about the transformative effects of exercise on brain health. Specifically, he unearths strong evidence that exercise—particularly aerobic exercise—physically remodels the brain for peak performance on all fronts.

He writes:

“First, [exercise] optimizes your mind-set to improve alertness, attention, and motivation; second, it prepares and encourages nerve cells to bind to one another, which is the cellular basis for logging in new information; and third, it spurs the development of new nerve cells from stem cells in the hippocampus.”

There’s also an enormous sense of well-being associated with exercise because it promotes the body’s secretion of endorphins. Endorphins are the body’s natural “feel good” neurotransmitters that make us feel energized, help us sleep better, and improve mental health.

With such a succulent smorgasbord of cognitive and stress-busting benefits, students preparing for exams should really make time to exercise daily (even while you study).

Exercising is one sure-fire way to turn your stress into better exam performance.

Step 9. Practice gratitude

Dog in the car window

If anxiety and stress are forces that dismantle and degrade, gratitude is a force that heals. In fact, studies show that gratitude is one of the best ways to reduce anxiety and be happy.

In a Positive Psychology article titled The Neuroscience of Gratitude and How It Affects Anxiety and Grief, it is written:

“When we express gratitude and receive the same, our brain releases dopamine and serotonin, the two crucial neurotransmitters responsible for controlling emotions, and they make us feel ‘good’. They enhance our mood immediately, making us feel happy from the inside.”

So put aside just 10 minutes a day, every day, to think about all the opportunities, privileges, and people you are grateful for. Focus on really feeling the gratitude because it’s that warm, fuzzy feeling that acts as a salve to your exam stress.

Conquer your exam stress and rise to your challenge

Man standing on the edge of a cliff

Our bodies are bathed, on a daily basis, in a cocktail of stress hormones. This used to increase our odds of survival but now they are just decreasing our quality and quantity of life. As a student—whether in high school, college, or a continuing education program—stress caused by exams, overdue assignments, and the pursuit of good test scores can become an intolerable load to bear ... even compromising our performance and leading to burnout.

BUT this doesn’t have to be the case.

  • Don’t avoid thinking about your stress as a way to cope. Acknowledge it and understand its nature so you know how to deal with it.
  • Recognize what problems you can and can’t solve. For those you can, develop a plan of action to help mitigate the stress it is causing you.
  • Create time for self-care and for stress-busting activities, like meditation, yoga, exercise, and practicing gratitude. Also, eat well before and during exam time!

Importantly, in conjunction with the above, STUDY and PREPARE for your exams, starting as early as possible to avoid the last-minute cram. And use Brainscape to help you onboard the required knowledge in half the time it would otherwise take you.

Remember: the most successful and confident people are simply those who have confronted and conquered the most adversity in their lives. Relish the opportunity to step outside your comfort zone and use exam stress (1) as your competitive advantage, (2) to drive your personal growth, and (3) to rise to your challenge!

Sources

American Psychological Association. (2018, November 1). Stress effects on the body. http://www.apa.org/topics/stress-body

Cassady, J. C. (2010). Anxiety in schools: The causes, consequences, and solutions for academic anxieties (Vol. 2). Peter Lang.

Clay, R. A. (2011). Stressed in America. Monitor on Psychology, 42(1), 60-61. www.apa.org/monitor/2011/01/stressed-america

Kim, E. J., Pellman, B., & Kim, J. J. (2015). Stress effects on the hippocampus: a critical review. Learning & Memory, 22(9), 411-416. https://dx.doi.org/10.1101%2Flm.037291.114

Ratey, J. J., & Hagerman, E. (Collaborator). (2008). Spark: The revolutionary new science of exercise and the brain. Little, Brown and Co.