What is Exam Stress?

Stress is a natural part of being human. It’s your body responding to changes in the world around you. It changes how your body works and puts your mind into different moods. When you’re getting stressed about an exam – it just means that you really care about the result you will get. That can be a good thing if it pushes you into working extra hard as you try to get a good result. But it can be bad if you get too worried and the effects of the stress stop you doing well. When exams get too much, the stress can show in your body.

If your stress levels rise too high for too long, it can be harmful both to you and to your chances. Everybody’s stress ‘threshold’ is different. A situation that is too much for one person to tolerate may be stimulating to another. Controlled at the right level, however, stress can work to your advantage, because it can help you to produce your peak performance.

Feeling stressed is a natural response to such pressure. We respond to pressure as if it were a physical threat. The body releases chemicals into the bloodstream that make you feel nervous and edgy. Muscles tense, ready for action and the heart beats faster to carry blood to the muscles and the brain. You breathe faster, sweat more and your mouth becomes dry. Hormones, such as adrenalin, cause these physical reactions. This automatic response is known as the ‘flight or fight’ reflex.

Some signs that you might be under too much stress:

  • headaches
  • sleeping badly
  • loss of appetite
  • being unusually bad tempered
  • feeling tired all the time
  • feeling sick
  • aches all over
  • crying and sadness
  • having panic attacks
  • suffer from stomach upsets
  • have itchy skin rashes


How can I de-stress?

Learning how to relax is crucial. Straightforward, effective, self-help techniques are going to be very helpful in the run-up to the exams, and even when you’re sitting in the exam room.

Breathing techniques:

Stress can make you start breathing with quick, shallow breaths and make your heart beat faster than usual. If this happens, sit down somewhere comfortable, if possible. Place one hand on your stomach and check how quickly you are breathing. If it’s one breath every couple of seconds, take a deep breath and start counting steadily. Breathe out slowly and try to get the last of the breath out on about five seconds. Carry on doing this until you are doing it naturally.

Relaxation routine

Close your eyes and breathe slowly and deeply

Locate any areas of tension and try to relax those muscles; imagine the tension disappearing

Relax each part of the body, from your feet to the top of your head

As you focus on each part of your body, think of warmth, heaviness and relaxation

After 20 minutes, take some deep breaths and stretch

Physical activity

Regular exercise is an excellent way of coping with stress. As little as 10 or 20 minutes a day spent walking, cycling, or at the gym can make a big difference.


If you’re tired, worries can get blown out of proportion. If you’ve been finding it difficult to get to sleep, try cutting down on stimulants (tea, coffee and alcohol, for instance) and make sure you have time to unwind before bed. A warm bath, with perhaps some added aromatherapy oils, can help. Some people feel very stressed about not getting enough sleep. It’s worth remembering that people can still function very well without any sleep for short periods of time.

Believe in yourself

You wouldn’t have been given a place on the course if you didn’t have the ability to do it. Therefore, if you prepare for the exams properly you should do fine, meaning that there is no need to worry excessively.

Don’t try to be perfect

It’s great to succeed and reach for the stars. But keep things in balance. If you think that “anything less than A+ means I’ve failed” then you are creating mountains of unnecessary stress for yourself. Aim to do your best but recognise that none of us can be perfect all of the time.

Take steps to overcome problems

If you find you don’t understand some of your course material, getting stressed out won’t help. Instead, take action to address the problem directly by seeing your course tutor or getting help from your class mates.

Don’t keep things bottled up

Confiding in someone you trust and who will be supportive is a great way of alleviating stress and worry.

Keep things in perspective

The exams might seem like the most crucial thing right now, but in the grander scheme of your whole life they are only a small part.


A few tips

A good way to minimise the amount of stress that you are feeling is to create a revision timetable. This way you can be make sure that you have plenty of time to revise all the subjects that you need to do (click here for great study techniques). Having a revision timetable will also give you the chance to build in rest breaks and time to spend relaxing. This will help you to stay calmer. If you find yourself sitting and getting more and more stressed you need to take a break. Go for a walk or take an hour to watch some television do something to take your mind off your stress.


For serious or urgent help, contact these numbers immediately:

Sanofi Aventis Sleep Line:


0800-SLEEPY ( 0800 753 379)

Anxiety Africa:

Contact: Lynda Woods, 27 11 884-7074, anxiety@iafrica.com