Humans and Health

Healthy Impact: Exam Stress

The university’s tireless urge to ruin any hopes of a winter break with the threat of looming exams is an unavoidable fact of student life. It’s super important, therefore, to deal with the inevitable stress that these exams bring. This means we can enjoy the festive period as much as possible, while giving ourselves the best chance of scoring good grades. Richard, our resident student GP explains how. 

Ahh, the Christmas holidays. Four weeks of family, festivities, and fretting over exams. I used to turn into a quivering wreck as exam seasons approached during my undergrad years. Nowadays, I still feel the stress but I deal with it much, much better.

Stress, like most things, is actually good for us in moderation. It gives us motivation, drive, and perseverance. If I hadn’t experienced a small degree of stress to meet the deadline for this article, for example, it still wouldn’t be finished. Yet, of course, this is completely different to feeling ‘stressed-out.’ Being stressed-out makes us endlessly worry and feel tense; it stops us from sleeping and makes us moody and irritable. When it’s really bad, it changes our appetite, stops us enjoying the things we normally like, and even gives us physical symptoms like nausea, tummy pains, headaches and palpitations.

“You’re so stressed-out that your functioning is impaired”

So, stress lies on a continuum. At the relaxed end, you’re without a care in the world, effortlessly flowing from one daydream-like moment to the next in your blissful utopia of tranquillity. At the opposite end, you’re so stressed-out that your functioning is impaired, meaning you can’t concentrate, making it impossible to revise.

The key feature of being stressed-out is control – specifically the lack of it. This in itself is the definition of stress – having no control over the negative feelings you’re experiencing, and being unable to change them. So then, allow me to give you a few tips on how to regain this control. Together, we can tame stress.

In true medical style, here’s an acronym to help you remember these tips: STRESS

Share the load

A problem shared is a problem halved.  We often underestimate the benefit of talking about our feelings to others who we trust and who care about us. Just telling your bestie that you’re feeling stressed will make you feel much better. Chances are, they’re feeling exactly the same. You’ll help out both of you by being open and honest.

“It’s also important to work out when you’re at your most productive”

Time management

The scientific literature suggests a 10-minute break every hour of revision helps to keep you focussed and cognitively optimised. That means getting away from your desk (and certainly away from your screen), stretching your legs, breathing in fresh air, and interacting with another human being. After 4 cycles of this, it’s then time for a full 1-hour break. It’s also important to work out when you’re at your most productive, and to honour that. Everybody’s different, and everybody changes. Sometimes I work best first thing in the morning, and sometimes really late at night.  Listening to your body, accepting it never runs like clockwork, and adjusting your daily timetable to facilitate this is a great idea. You’ll never remember anything you read if you read it while tired, hungry, or bursting for a wee.


This means relaxing your mind.  Exercise, especially aerobic training, is fantastical for this and improves cognitive functioning once the exercise is completed. Meditation is something I’ve recently discovered and am finding to be a valuable part of my daily routine. Setting aside just 15 minutes a day, ideally prior to eating a meal, where all my focus is directed solely on my breathing, slows my mind, clears it of cluttered thinking and makes me very grateful for everything I have in life (even a looming set of exams). This can also be achieved with mindfulness. Try listening to a mindfulness or guided-medication video on YouTube while laying on your bed.  It takes a while to ‘get it’ but when you do (and you will), it’s certainly worth the time out.

“Taking the time to buy fresh ingredients”

Eat healthily

Complex carbohydrates, fruit, vegetables, and water are the key ingredients to optimise your brain’s biochemistry and maximise the impact of your revision time. Taking the time to buy fresh ingredients, cooking from scratch and staying hydrated boosts your mind’s focus and attention. Fatty meals, highly-processed snacks, and high-sugar drinks may give you that useful mental ‘high’ but it will be inevitably short-lived and will soon be followed by a crash so powerful you’ll be asleep at your desk, unable to revise a second longer.

Say no to stimulants and depressants!

While alcohol does make you feel relaxed, it also dehydrates you, depresses you, and stops you from sleeping soundly. Avoid it entirely during exam times. Sure, while the odd tea or coffee is good for mental alertness, high-caffeine energy drinks are also an absolute no-no for the delicate balance of your brain’s biochemistry.


Everybody needs a different amount of sleep.  Some function perfectly off 5 hours, while others need a solid 9 to feel normal. To promote a good night’s sleep consult a previous Impact article of mine!

This isn’t rocket science. You’ve heard this advice before and you may have ignored it in the search for a ‘magic’ answer. I’m a GP, and I can guarantee that there is no magic answer out there. The human brain is fascinating. It is the most complicated entity in the entire known universe. The fact that our brain is aware that it is stressed-out and can change the environment in which it exists to reduce that stress is, to me, utterly mind-blowing.

“Unleash your brain’s power”

So, listen to your brain. Give it the best chance to work at its best. Follow these simple steps and unleash your brain’s power to keep your stress at bay, revise, and feel festive!

Of course, if this isn’t enough and you’re struggling with exam stress, please book an appointment to see your GP straight away. They’ll always be able to help you.

Richard Armitage 

Image Courtesy of Sodanie Chea via Flickr. License here

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