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In April 2017, more than 2000 Australian students were surveyed about their tertiary experience, and unsurprisingly, 83% of them suffered from stress. In a time when financial difficulties, heavy workloads, and looming deadlines are commonplace, is it any wonder that this statistic is so high? With exam time just around the corner, the conversation around stress and mental health is even more critical, so we sat down with five students (past and present) to discuss their tried and tested techniques for crushing exam stress.

Stress undressed – what does it do to you?

When the human body detects stress, the brain reacts by triggering a surge of adrenaline and cortisol. These hormones help deal with threats or pressure, and this hormonal surge is called the ‘flight or fight response’.

A little stress can be motivating. In a recent study, it was shown that certain amounts of stress allow for the creation of new nerve cells that, when mature, can enhance memory performance.

 

Certain amounts of stress allow for the creation of new nerve cells that, when mature, can enhance memory performance.

 

On the flip side, too much stress has been shown to impair academic performance in university students. Stress left unaddressed, will impact more than just grades. Research has shown that chronic stress is a breeding ground for illnesses including depression, anxiety, and impaired immunity – to name a few.

When exam time rolls around, it’s inevitable that student stress levels will rise. It’s not surprising to see why - many exams carry a high weighting, which means failing an exam can be the equivalent of failing an entire subject.

Michael Di Stasi has recently graduated from a Master of Business course at Deakin University and is familiar with the effects of exam weighting. “The pressure is on because everything rests on a three hour exam – no matter what you achieved in the other three months of the semester,” says Di Stasi.

While academic factors are the predominant cause of stress in most students, physical, social, and emotional factors also come into play. One thing is clear, though: it’s important to try to nip stress in the bud – for the sake of academic performance and, just as critically, for mental wellbeing.

 

Five tips to address exam stress – straight from successful students.

1. PREPARE…TO PERSPIRE.

Janice Fung, The University of Melbourne - Master of Teaching

“Once you’ve put together your study plan, schedule in times for daily exercise. Studying is a very sedentary task – so exercise can give you the boost you need to work more efficiently.” Says Fung.

The idea is to plan for exercise, just as much and as strictly as you would for study. Set a timer and make sure it gets done. When you’re exercising – don’t let yourself feel like you’re missing out on valuable study time, because the thing is, exercising IS just as important as studying.

Exam Stress Dance

There is strong evidence to suggest that exercise is associated with reduced stress and anxiety and a range of studies have attempted to explain how it works. Many have suggested that exercise stimulates the production of neurochemicals like norepinephrine, serotonin, and dopamine, which are associated with improved cognitive function, elevated mood, and learning. Others believe that exercise supplies experiences of self-mastery, which increases self-efficacy and leads to one’s ability to trust that they can manage potential threats. The general consensus among psychiatrists seems to be that exercise allows the body’s biological and physiological systems to ‘practice’ being under stress and thereby improves the body’s stress response overall.

 

2. DO SOMETHING COMPLETELY UNRELATED TO STUDY

Antonia Kalcina, The University of Melbourne – Juris Doctor

“I like to talk to someone who has absolutely nothing to do with my course,” says Kalcina.

Emotional states might be transferable; that is, people can take on the emotional state of others - positive or negative - without even meaning to. A 2014 study has shown that this phenomenon occurs online too. Researchers found that a mood expressed on Facebook by one person in one part of the world spread to multiple parts of the globe in one day.

It makes sense then to seek out friends – online or face-to-face - who are not going through a stressful examination period.

“If I don’t feel like talking, I’ll bake a cake.” Says Kalcina.

For years psychologists have been exploring baking as a therapeutic tool for people with anxiety and depression. A recent study found that people who frequently took part in small, creative activities reported feelings of greater relaxation and happiness.

People who frequently took part in small, creative activities reported feelings of greater relaxation and happiness.


3. TALK TO YOURSELF

Chris Skevo, Victoria University - Bachelor of Psychological Studies/Bachelor of Business

In times of heightened stress, negative self-talk can increase – and self-talk has a powerful effect on how we feel at any given moment. So if a student is constantly telling themselves that they will fail their exam, or that their future is doomed, they can start to believe these things are true. This outcome leads to more stress.

The most effective way to deal with negative self-talk is to challenge it. Students can do this by asking themselves:

Are my thoughts factual or am I just jumping to negative conclusions? How would I perceive this situation if I was being positive?

It’s also common for students to feel like they have no control during exam time. There are so many unknowns. They don’t know what will be on the exam, whether they’ve prepared enough, whether they will pass or fail, or whether the outcome will affect their employment opportunities.

Therefore, when addressing exam-related, negative self-talk in particular, it’s a good idea for students to remind themselves that, when it comes to their success, they are in charge.

“Tell yourself, over and over, that you have control of your success. Visualise the path ahead of you and remind yourself that you have the ability to do what you need to achieve the outcome,” says Skevo.


4. CREATE SOME HEAD SPACE

Steven Ballerini, Melbourne Business School – Executive MBA

“Meditating helps me clear my mind of all the traffic and noise. It’s a bit like hitting the ‘reset’ button on the brain,” says Ballerini.

Meditation is an ancient practice, reportedly originating in India in 1500BC and undertaken mainly for the purposes of spiritual growth, as well as improving attention and concentration. A 2014 review and meta-analysis concluded that modern day meditation can help ease various psychological stresses.

Exam Stress YogaInterestingly, MRI scans taken after an eight-week course of mindfulness meditation show a decrease in the size of the amygdala – the primal region of the brain in which the ‘fight or flight’ response originates. As the amygdala shrinks, the prefrontal cortex, which is in charge of higher order brain functions such as awareness, concentration, and decision-making becomes thicker. This suggests that, through meditation, our primal responses to stress can be overcome and controlled by more thoughtful ones.

It can be done anywhere, any time. And online mindfulness training, via an app or otherwise, produces similar results to in-person training. 

“I usually aim to meditate for 10 minutes right before an exam so I walk in with a nice, steady heart rate, and a feeling of calm.” Says Ballerini.

 

5. CAN THE CRAMMING

Michael Di Stasi, Deakin University – Master of Business

“Never study the night before. You know what you know and cramming won’t help,” says Di Stasi.

Leaving an important task until the last minute increases adrenalin and cortisol, meaning cramming in and of itself is a stressful experience. But there are two other major problems with this study approach:

The first is that cramming promotes ‘recognition’ by creating a flurry of activity in memory systems, which lingers, and allows the brain to tag study notes as ‘something I have seen before’. But being able to recognise information does not necessarily mean that it can be recalled. This is because recognition and recall are completely different psychological systems

A 2006 meta-analysis explored the concept of spacing during study periods and found that learning is powerfully affected by the distribution of study time. If students conducted study over two different points in time, they recalled a greater percentage of the material than when the same amount of study time was largely uninterrupted.

The second issue is that, when study is crammed, often sleep is sacrificed. Sleep deprivation impedes learning. An adequate amount of sleep is critical for academic success. 


Learn to maintain a positive attitude.

Students face a lot of pressure to learn and understand course material. But they should also seek to understand how they learn best. Even the tips listed here will work for some and not others – and that’s OK. It’s important to recognise that there is not one true way to learning and studying; many paths lead to the same destination.

“My mantra throughout law school was ‘comparison is the thief of joy’ (Theodore Roosevelt). Try not to worry if you’re not doing what everyone else is doing. Find what works for you in regards to study techniques and dealing with stress,” says Kalcina.

Above all, students should always strive to put things in perspective.

“Exam time is tough - no matter how well you know a subject, you will always encounter some nerves or stress. Remember that it is never the end of world if you don’t pass – it’s just bump in the road,” says Di Stasi.


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