Managing exam stress: The ball's in your court

It’s inevitable that students will need to deal with or learn how to manage stress at some point during their school careers. If not, it can become paralysing and, in some extreme cases, a worrying health issue. Other times students aren’t even aware of the underlying stress that affects their bodies and minds in a negative way.

But before we can learn how to manage exam stress, best we first learn how to identify it.

How to identify exam stress

Exam stress is experienced by many students and can be identified in various ways. The first indicator is often excessive worry about upcoming exams. Then there’s also the fear of being evaluated and apprehension about the outcome and consequences. Other common symptoms include:

  • struggling to sleep
  • loss of appetite
  • anxiety
  • irritability
  • headaches and/or migraines

It’s therefore only natural that students need some sort of escape to deal with / cope with the stress they experience before and during exams.

How to manage exam stress

It’s of paramount importance to get enough sleep, eat healthy foods, and take a day off, or even just a few hours to give the brain a rest; even more so is making an effort to unwind thoroughly by doing some form of exercise or sport.

Practising sport on a regular basis can help boost concentration and energy levels, clear the mind, and reduce stress.

Howell Wechsler, Director of the Division of Adolescent and School Health for the Centers for Disease Control, reviewed 50 studies that examined the effect of school-based physical activity on academic performance. Multiple studies showed that even relatively short spans of physical activity helped increase the duration and intensity of concentration.

Often times, right before exams begin, students tend to cut down on sport in order to have more time to study (which can very well be counter-productive). Keep in mind that excessive exercise, on the other hand, can result in exhaustion. Students need to find the right balance between study time and down time.

Why escape with sport?

Regular light exercise like walking, jogging, or participating in a sport such as cycling, dancing, swimming, rugby, or tennis, for example, is really good for cognitive function. Students who partake in sports have been shown to exhibit more active brain function, better concentration and energy levels as well as better classroom behaviour than their less-active peers.

Perhaps your children or students feel like they don’t have enough time to do both sports and studying, or it could be that they experience pressure to perform both in the classroom and on the sports field. Either way, the benefits of practising sport seems to counterbalance the challenges it presents. According to researchers at the Brown Center on Education Policy, a commitment to school sports does not have to translate into compromised academic performance.

In fact, another study by the Economic and Social Research Institute (ESRI) shows that while many students cut back on sport or other activities to have more time to study, those who kept up regular physical exercise had less stress than those who didn’t.

What happens in the brain?

Once you start exercising your brain recognises it as a moment of stress (ironically enough). Due to increased heart pressure, the brain thinks the body is either fighting an enemy or fleeing from it. To protect yourself and your brain from stress, you release a protein called BDNF (Brain-Derived Neurotrophic Factor) which has a protective and also reparative element to the memory neurones and acts as a kind of ‘reset switch’.

This explains why we feel so content after exercising. Things are usually much clearer because the brain feels renewed and refreshed. This is, therefore, a great time to get behind the books again.

In conclusion, it’s therefore clear that practising sport is a great way to deal with exam stress. The participation in school sport should therefore be encouraged all year round - not only during non-exam times. The positive effect it has on a student’s physical, mental, and emotional wellbeing, as well as their academic results, is undeniable.

  1. Exam stress linked to lack of exercise

  2. Techniques for dealing with exam stress

  3. Does participation in sport negatively affect academics?

  4. Does playing sports help improve grades?

  5. The impact of sports on middle school students

  6. What happens to our brains when we exercise and how it makes us happier