Exam stress is on the rise. In the 2016/17 academic year, Childline delivered 3,135 counselling sessions on exam stress, an increase of over 11% from the previous year. Many of these sessions were delivered in May, just as the exam season begins.
Taking an exam is a significant stressor for many students, and can result in emotional and physiological stress reactions, leading to poorer than expected performance in the exam itself. However, exam stress can also have a negative impact on student physical and psychological well-being in general. It is therefore important to develop good, practical advice for students to help them cope with the demands of exam season.
Can exam stress be managed?
In short, yes! Many strategies for managing stress in elite sport and in business are based on an idea called cognitive mediation – this is where feelings of stress arise based on how an individual thinks about or evaluates a situation. Often, it is not the situation itself that directly causes the stress, but rather, it is what an individual thinks and believes about the situation that causes the stress. For example, it is not ‘I feel stressed because I have to take an exam today’, but rather ‘I feel stressed because the exam I have to take today is vital for my future’.
So, if we know that how we think about a situation causes us to feel stressed, students can reduce feelings of exam stress by thinking about the situation and their exam stress differently. With this in mind, there are two emerging stress management strategies that draw on the idea of cognitive mediation, and that can help students to harness their feelings of stress for the benefit of exam performance.
It is important to remember that stress is a normal way in which humans prepare for, and react to meaningful situations, and feeling stress has been essential for human survival over the course of evolution. To reappraise stress means to think differently about stress, and to recognise that stress is normal, and can actually be helpful for performance.
For example, if a student is feeling anxious before an exam, the student could reappraise their feelings so that they perceive the anxiety as helpful for their exam performance.
So, how could this be achieved? A research study tried to get students to reappraise their feelings of exam stress by telling them, prior to the exam, ‘recent research suggests that arousal doesn’t hurt performance’, ‘people who feel anxious during a test might actually do better’, and to ‘simply remind yourself that your arousal could be helping you do well’. The students reported that they were more confident and performed better in the exam compared to a control group of students who prepared for the exam as normal.
Importantly, the aim of reappraisal is not to dampen arousal, but instead to encourage students to consider their stress response as helpful for their exam performance. In other words, there is no need to reduce stress, but instead reframe how stress is viewed so that it becomes helpful rather than harmful for performance.
Gain some perspective
So, stress can be good or bad, and it is not the situation that directly causes stress, it is what an individual thinks and believes about the situation that causes stress. But what kind of thoughts and beliefs trigger unhelpful vs helpful stress? Research suggests that thoughts and beliefs that are rigid, extreme, and illogical (irrational beliefs), lead to unhelpful stress, whereas thoughts and beliefs that are flexible, non-extreme, and logical (rational beliefs), lead to helpful stress.
One irrational belief that is prominent in exam stress is frustration intolerance, the belief that you cannot tolerate, cannot stand, or cannot bear the situation at all. Students often say ‘I can’t stand exams’ – this is a frustration intolerance belief. These beliefs are associated with symptoms of depression and anxiety, and with procrastination.
So, for exam stress and exam preparation, it would be advantageous to manage and reduce frustration intolerance. The most important factor in reducing this is to realise that you can tolerate more than you think you can. There are lots of powerful examples of humans tolerating huge adversity and discomfort, but the story of the Robertson family shipwreck is one that perfectly exemplifies human resilience. In 1972, the Robertson family were shipwrecked by killer whales in the Pacific Ocean for 38 days on a dingy with no food or water. They killed 13 turtles and a five-foot shark using a spear fashioned from a paddle, for food. For water, because the rain water in the boat had been poisoned by the turtle blood, they took enemas to hydrate, bypassing the stomach and the side effects of the poisonous water. They survived to tell the tale.
A note to students
Reflect on this story when you face your exams. Of course you can tolerate exams. Exam preparation is difficult and demanding, but you can stand it, and more importantly, it’s worth it to do so. Of course exam stress is unpleasant and uncomfortable, but you can stand it, it’s worth it to do so, and stress can actually help your performance.
Dr Martin Turner is Senior Lecturer in Sport and Exercise Psychology at Staffordshire University, and a BPS Chartered and HCPC registered Sport and Exercise Psychologist. He investigates how individuals can better cope with adversity with the use of biofeedback and Rational Emotive Behaviour Therapy (REBT). Martin set up the Smarter Thinking Project, a public-facing website for blogs and scientific thinking in performance psychology. He received the 2018 Albert Ellis Award for Research for his work exploring REBT in sport. Connect with him on Twitter @DrMJTurner.
Dr Elizabeth Braithwaite is a Senior Researcher in Stress at Staffordshire University. She was awarded a BSc in Neuroscience from Cardiff University in 2011, and a Doctorate in Psychiatry from the University of Oxford in 2015. Her research concerns the origins of mental health difficulties, with a focus on the contributions of stress. She is currently working on several stress-related research projects, including understanding the origins of depression and anxiety in adolescents. She also sits on the editorial board of Psychreg Journal of Psychology. She tweets @LizCBraithwaite.