Does exam stress frequently affect your grades?
If so, you’re in the right place.
In this article, I’ll share with you scientific tips that are proven to help you overcome exam stress.
I guarantee that if you apply the tips, you’ll become a calmer, happier and more successful student.
Let’s get started!
Stay active and improve your physical health to relieve stress before a test
Physical activity is one of the best, scientifically proven methods to combat stress.
Exercise directly reduces stress hormones, such as adrenaline and cortisol. At the same time, exercise stimulates the production of endorphins, which elevate your mood and are natural painkillers.
In addition, when your physical health improves, you’ll be in a better position to handle stress effectively.
Everyone knows you should stretch to improve your flexibility, but did you also know that stretching is proven to reduce tension and blood pressure too?
Here’s a practical 15-minute stretching workout to get you started.
2. Take a short walk
Taking a walk has beneficial effects on your stress levels.
Walking gives you time to think, as well as time to get away from studying for a short while.
Going for a walk with your family or friends for 10 or 20 minutes a day is a great way to unwind.
3. Exercise regularly
Research has shown that high-intensity aerobic exercise has positive effects on well-being.
It’s time to get moving!
This doesn’t mean that you have to start training for a marathon, but it does mean that you need to introduce some regular exercise into your life.
Here are some suggestions:
- Do some form of exercise (jogging, biking, walking, callisthenics) 3 to 5 times a week for 30 minutes each time.
- Set small – even tiny – daily goals and focus on consistency. Scientific research indicates that frequency is more important than intensity when it comes to forming new habits like exercise.
- Do exercise that’s enjoyable for you.
- If you simply don’t find any form of exercise enjoyable, distract yourself with music, audiobooks or podcasts while you’re exercising.
- Find an “exercise buddy”. It’s easier to stick to a routine when you have an exercise buddy.
4. Get some sunlight every day
A way to increase your serotonin levels is to increase your exposure to sunlight.
Anywhere from 5 to 15 minutes of sunlight per day will help to keep your serotonin levels in the healthy range.
But remember to wear a hat and to apply sunscreen if you’re going to be out in direct sunlight for longer than 15 minutes.
5. Get enough sleep
Stress and sleep have a two-way relationship. Stress can make it more difficult to fall asleep. It can even lead to sleep disorders.
At the same time, getting a good night’s sleep reduces the effects of stress.
Practise these tips to get a good night’s rest every night:
- Try to go to sleep and get up at the same time every day. This helps to set your body’s internal clock and optimises the quality of your sleep.
- Avoid sleeping in, even on weekends. Aim to keep your sleep schedule as regular as possible. If you have a late night, try taking a short nap the following day, rather than sleeping in.
- Keep your electronic devices out of your bedroom. The blue light emitted by your electronic devices (e.g. phone, tablet, computer, TV) is especially disruptive to sleep.
- Wind down before you go to bed. Turn off all your devices an hour before it’s time to sleep. Read a book, listen to some calming music, or think of a happy memory.
6. Do deep breathing exercises
Science has proven that deep breathing reduces your cortisol levels.
There are many deep breathing exercises you could try, but here are a couple of them to get you started:
- Belly breathing: Sit or lie in a comfortable position and place one hand on your belly. Breathe in deeply through your nose, and feel your hand being pushed outwards as the air fills your lungs. Now exhale through your mouth, and feel your hand moving inwards. Repeat 5 to 6 times.
- Morning breathing: When you get out of bed, stand up straight, bend your knees slightly, and bend forward from the waist. Let your arms hang limply towards the floor. Breathe in slowly, returning to your original standing position as you do. Your head should be the last part of your body to straighten. Exhale slowly, returning to the bent position by the end of your breath. Repeat 5 to 6 times.
7. Get enough vitamin C
Studies indicate that vitamin C (ascorbic acid) helps to reduce blood pressure and cortisol, which are both signs of stress.
The human body doesn’t produce vitamin C, so it’s vital that you consume plenty of it in your diet.
Here’s a list of fruits and vegetables that are rich in vitamin C:
8. Reduce your sugar intake
Research shows that when you’re stressed, your adrenal glands release cortisol – a stress hormone – to manage it.
But cortisol also affects your blood sugar level. So, the more your sugar intake spikes, the more stressed you’ll feel.
Did you know that what happens in the morning has more effect on how your body manages stress than at any other time?
This is because your body sets its blood sugar “clock” based on what you do after you wake up.
Here are some practical tips to help you reduce your sugar intake and maintain a healthy diet:
- Skip breakfast.
- Eat sugary cereals or candy.
- Drink sugary drinks.
- Eat a high-protein breakfast. Include eggs, peanut butter, oats or nuts.
- Eat 4 to 5 servings of fruits and vegetables a day.
- Eat more fish, e.g. salmon, trout.
Organisational tips to prevent stress before a test
Strong organisational skills and focus will help you schedule time to study for an exam well in advance.
Starting too late and cramming in too much information before an exam is a common cause of anxiety. So, take that pressure off of yourself and turn stressful exams into… just exams without the stress.
9. Clear your room and your desk
Have you heard the saying “A cluttered desk is a sign of a cluttered mind”?
It turns out it’s not just something your mother says to get you to clean your room. It’s scientifically correct.
The more clutter you have around your workspace, the less you’re able to concentrate on preparing for the exam. This is because your brain is being bombarded by so many distractions.
Physical clutter overloads your brain and impairs your ability to think, which leads to stress.
So you need to clear your desk and your room. Do the following to get organised:
- Reduce as much clutter as you can around your workspace. Get rid of anything that doesn’t need to be there, e.g. photos, snacks, staplers. Move them out of sight, or out of your room completely.
- Use drawers. Store things away in your drawers or wardrobe. The only things you should have on your desk are the tools and books you need to complete your current assignment.
- Clean your space. Now that you’ve cleared your space, give your desk and room a good clean.
- Straighten up before you go. Take 5 minutes at the end of the day to clear everything away, so you can start again tomorrow with an uncluttered desk and an uncluttered mind.
10. Learn and apply time management techniques
A study involving students revealed that those who had been taught time management techniques showed lower levels of exam-related anxiety than those who had not.
Effective time management includes getting enough rest and a good night’s sleep, which leaves you feeling more energised so that you’re able to focus when studying.
Managing your time well helps you to avoid feeling overwhelmed, so you’ll be less stressed.
Here are just a few of the many time management techniques I used to become a straight-A student, while still getting 8 hours of sleep a night:
- Take a break after studying for 40 to 50 minutes. For most students, working in blocks of 40 to 50 minutes helps them to be as productive as possible.
- Complete assignments at least one to two days before they’re due. By doing this, you’ll have time to check through your work thoroughly.
- Block out time for studying. Put it in your calendar and treat it as if it’s a fixed appointment.
11. Don’t multitask
Multitasking is bad for your health. It increases your heart rate and blood pressure, and causes stress.
Doing several tasks at once may seem like an efficient use of your time, but multitasking actually wastes time and reduces the quality of your work.
Here’s how to avoid multitasking:
- Get rid of all distractions before you start work (see Tip #1).
- Close all the unused tabs in your browser, and minimise all other windows on your computer screen.
- Make a list of all the tasks you need to complete for the day; work through the list one item at a time.
- Set a realistic deadline for every task on the list.
12. Reduce your phone usage
Who would have thought your mobile phone could cause stress?
So it’s time to get smart about your smartphone.
Here are a few things you could try:
- Check your social media feeds just once or twice a day.
- Turn off all notifications.
- Put your phone on airplane mode, or better still, switch it off after 9pm.
If you’re still struggling, there are fun apps designed to help you ignore your mobile phone and focus on studying for your exams, such as Forest.
When you want to concentrate, you can plant a seed in Forest, which will take 30 minutes to grow. But if you get distracted and leave the app, your tree will wither and die.
Stimulate your senses and de-stress before a test
If you know you typically get stressed before an exam, try sensory stimulation. These activities can help you get out of your head and into your body.
If you try any of these tips while taking a study break, be sure to get back to work soon. Otherwise, you’ll just be procrastinating and you’ll be even more stressed afterwards.
13. Sing your heart out
Researchers have discovered that singing can soothe your tension and elevate your spirits. This reduces the effects of stress.
When you sing, you release endorphins, which are associated with feelings of pleasure.
And the more you sing, the more you increase your endorphins and lower your levels of cortisol.
So if you’re trying to beat exam stress, sing your heart out when you’re taking a break!
14. Read something for leisure
It’s proven that reading for pleasure can reduce stress by up to 68%.
Reading relaxes your body by lowering your heart rate and easing the tension in your muscles.
So the next time you feel the tension rise at the thought of an impending exam, pick up a good book and give yourself a 10-minute reading break.
15. Try aromatherapy
Research has shown that aromatherapy has the power to evoke emotions and memories and can impact your body through your nervous system.
This makes aromatherapy an effective tool to help you deal with exam stress.
Here are 6 scents or oils to help you relieve stress and improve your sleep quality:
- Ylang ylang
- Clary sage
Various studies have shown that these aromatherapy oils can lower your blood pressure, heart rate, and even skin temperature, as well as soothe anxiety by calming the nervous system.
16. Drink tea
A study has found that black tea has health benefits linked to stress relief.
Other teas that anecdotally aid stress relief are peppermint tea, because it’s a natural muscle relaxant; chamomile tea, which helps insomnia and reduces irritability; and lemon balm tea, which reduces cortisol and improves sleep.
Enjoy a soothing cup of tea every day, and it will help you to prepare more effectively for your exams.
17. Eat dark chocolate
Research has shown that eating a small amount of dark chocolate every day reduces stress hormone levels.
This is great news for chocolate lovers!
But remember, the chocolate must be dark (with 70% or more cocoa).
In addition, dark chocolate is a calorie-dense food, so it’s not recommended that you eat more than 40g to 60g a day.
Strengthen your mental endurance ahead of stressful exams
School and life can get stressful at times.
The situation isn’t always going to be within your control, but you can control how you react to and deal with stress.
Before a stressful situation comes up, you can work on building your mental endurance to become more confident and resilient.
18. Practise mindfulness
Mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) is scientifically proven to be an effective treatment for reducing stress.
Although it was initially created to help hospital patients, MBSR is now used by a broad range of people, including students.
Mindfulness is the practice of being aware of your mind and body.
For example, to practise mindfulness, close your eyes and focus entirely on your breathing. Be aware of every breath and “follow” the air as it goes from your lungs and out through your nose.
You can also try lying with your back on the floor while keeping your eyes closed. “Move” your focus through your body, focusing on one area at a time.
You don’t have to be sitting or lying down to practise mindfulness. You can do it while you’re walking.
Focus on the sensations in your body as you walk. Notice the feeling in your feet as they touch the ground, and the movement of your hips with each step.
The more you practise mindfulness, the more fully present you’ll be wherever you are, and the less stressed you’ll be.
19. Listen to quiet, calming music
I’ve already mentioned that singing can help to reduce exam stress, but so can listening to music – especially slow, soothing classical music, like this.
The comforting power of music is well established, which makes music an effective stress management tool.
Listening to music has a relaxing effect on our minds and bodies, slowing our pulse, lowering our blood pressure, and decreasing our levels of stress hormones.
So set aside 10 minutes a day to tune in to some classical music and tune out your exam stress.
20. Write down the things you’re worried about
It’s been proven that if you take a few moments to write about your fears just before you take an exam, it will help to reduce your anxiety and improve your grades.
In the experiment, students were asked to complete a brief expressive writing assignment right before taking a test.
The results showed that doing the writing assignment significantly improved the students’ exam scores, especially those who were habitually anxious about taking tests.
Just writing about your worries before an exam can boost your grades – so do this before your next exam!
21. Think of a happy memory
Research suggests that the natural chemical, serotonin, creates a sense of well-being and helps your brain to function at peak capacity.
One way to produce more serotonin is to think positive thoughts.
Start by thinking about a happy memory – something that makes you smile. Think of it as your happy place and go there in your mind as often as possible.
When you feel stressed, think about your favourite memory from your childhood, or about something you did as a family recently that was fun.
22. Write down 3 things you’re thankful for
I’m sure you’re grateful for many things in your life.
Maybe you’re grateful for a loving family or loyal friends. Or maybe you’re just grateful you passed your last math exam.
But perhaps you don’t express that gratitude often.
Did you know that if you write down all the things you’re grateful for, your health will improve?
Studies have found that expressing gratitude can lower your blood pressure, improve your sleep and boost your immune system.
So when you’re taking a break from studying, why not write down 3 things you’re grateful for?
It could be something you take for granted, like the invention of the Internet (I’m extremely thankful for that!), or something like the fact that you get to attend school.
Your body and mind will thank you for cultivating a habit of gratitude.
23. Use positive affirmations
Repeating positive affirmations is a powerful way to calm yourself down and banish those exam butterflies.
In fact, research has shown that positive affirmations can help reduce exam stress by reducing adrenalin levels.
Here are some positive affirmations you can try the next time you feel those stress levels rising. Repeat them out loud to yourself several times a day:
- I’m becoming more focused.
- I’m continuing to work hard.
- I’m getting better at taking exams.
- I’m enjoying the process of learning.
- I’m motivated to prepare well for this exam.
- I’m going to perform well on this exam.
- Learning is meaningful and fun.
- I’m developing self-discipline.
- I love the challenge of taking exams.
24. Focus on progress, not perfection
Do you sometimes feel as if you’re not good enough? Do you think that you’ll never be able to achieve the goals you’ve set for yourself?
If so, you may be a perfectionist.
This is another way of saying you’re too hard on yourself, which means that you need to focus on the progress you’re making instead of your perceived failures.
Being a perfectionist may sound ideal, but it often causes undue stress.
These are some ways to deal with it:
- Set realistic goals instead of trying to achieve the impossible.
- Celebrate small and big successes.
- Make sure you take time out from studying to do things you enjoy.
- Invest in the relationships that matter the most to you.
- Find ways to contribute at home and at school, because this will shift your focus toward the needs of others.
- Learn to use words like “acceptable” and “good”, because if you always aim for “perfection”, you may not even make progress.
25. Be kind to yourself
It’s easy to become anxious when all you can focus on is the fear of failing the exam.
Stress weaves its way into your life when you’re too hard on yourself. So ease up and give yourself a break. It’s time to practise self-compassion.
Research indicates that self-compassion reduces your stress levels and improves your sense of well-being.
These are some ways to practise self-compassion:
- At the end of each day, write down 3 of your achievements. It doesn’t matter how big or small these achievements are, e.g. completing your math assignment, reading a chapter of your history textbook. What matters is that you acknowledge these achievements.
- Talk to yourself kindly. Speak to yourself as if you’re your own best friend.
- Do something fun every day. Life doesn’t have to be serious all the time.
- Set realistic goals. Don’t set yourself up for failure by setting impossible targets.
These are the 25 tips backed by research, which will enable you to beat exam stress.
Now it’s over to you…
Do you use any techniques to overcome exam stress that aren’t listed in this article?
Or maybe you have a question you’d like to ask.
Let me know by leaving a comment below!