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Exam stress and the science behind it
May 17, 2016
Most of us have, at one time or another, sat down in front of an exam paper and experienced a ‘mind blank’, sweaty palms, the panic setting in and the loud incessant ticking of the clock on the wall as the minutes begin counting down.
This form of stress is called exam anxiety, and some of us are more sensitive to it than others.
Stress is a natural response that evolved to protect us from danger. When we are faced with a stressor, a hormone is released which causes a few physiological changes; our heart pumps faster to supply our muscles with more oxygen; our blood pressure increases and we begin to sweat, preventing us from over-heating due to the body’s increased metabolic rate.
Although this evolutionary advantage is superb at preparing the body to tackle a bear (or run from one!) it’s not the most conducive when it comes to sitting exams.
According to findings by psychologist Martyn Denscombe, teens suffer exam anxiety for four reasons:
- The consequences associated with the outcome of the exam e.g. educational or occupational.
- Their self-esteem with regards to the outcomes of their grades. (Students who have higher grades are more likely to have higher self-esteem.)
- Family and friends judging their performance.
- Fear of disappointing their teachers.
So, what can you do?
If you are feeling the effects of exam anxiety, breathe slowly and deeply, and have a drink of water. This can help stop the stress response and rehydrate the body.
Try and remember that a test is never worth the physical strain you are putting yourself through. Teachers, family and friends sometimes forget the effect of saying; “You need to get ‘x’ in this exam, otherwise it will be difficult to ‘xyz’.” These kinds of statements and advice can increase the pressure on a student.
It may be helpful to sit down with your friends, family or teachers to discuss the realistic outcomes of your upcoming exams to alleviate the pressure you may be feeling.
Why does our mind blank? How can we prevent it?
When we are under excessive stress or experiencing exam anxiety, our body releases a stress hormone called cortisol. As part of our evolutionary response, it helps us adapt in ‘fight or flight’ situations. Studies have shown that cortisol impairs the speed of our memory recall, causing that mind blank before or during an exam.
Research has shown that there is 50% more cortisol in the blood stream if we only manage to have 6 hours of sleep, instead of 8 hours. So, it is vitally important to head to bed earlier during revision and the night before the exam. A healthy nutritional diet, regular meals and plenty of water can also help keep your cortisol hormone at a natural level and help you to concentrate during revision and on the day of the exam.
Exam anxiety before the exam
As humans, we learn from past experiences. Those who endured an incredibly stressful test in the past can build up expectations of how they expect future exams to be, causing lots of stress during the lead up.
This more chronic form of exam anxiety can cause high blood pressure, and weaken your immune system, leaving you to feel very run down. If you feel as though you are more susceptible to exam stress, it is useful to identify this early on (easier said than done!). With the help of your family, teachers, friends and tutors, identify your stressors (areas that are difficult and cause you stress) and make a plan for your final weeks of revision.
We wish the best of luck to all students with exams coming up!