Exam Stress – Why And How To Manage It

Exam stress is something we all have probably experienced at some point in our lives, some more than others. For those who have a lot of important exams and want to have high grades exam stress can be a pretty huge obstacle while pursuing their dream. Knowing how to manage it can make studying and overall school experience much easier.

Why do we sometimes get a blackout during the exam we studied for?

Human and animal studies have found that stress or elevated levels of corticosteroids (cortisol in humans) impair various hippocampal-dependent memory tasks. Stress changes neuronal morphology, suppresses neuronal proliferation, and reduces hippocampal volume.

Hippocampus is divided into three regions: CA1, CA2, and CA3. These regions form the trilaminar loop, which is the processing center of long-term memory and is a vital brain mechanism involved in memory storage. If hippocampus is on overdrive from corticosteroids due to too much stress, it shuts down and you can’t remember anything. That’s why it’s so important for you to know how to manage stressful situations.

To sum it up: if you’re stressing too much about something, you overdrive the part of the brain that is responsible for storing long term memories and keeps you from forgetting them and due to that overdrive this part of the brain, called hippocampus shuts down and you can’t remember anything.

What is hippocampus (Britannica's definiton)?

Hippocampus; region of the brain that is associated primarily with memory. The name hippocampus is derived from the Greek hippocampus (hippos, meaning “horse,” and kampos, meaning “sea monster”), since the structure’s shape resembles that of a sea horse. The hippocampus, which is located in the inner (medial) region of the temporal lobe, forms part of the limbic system, which is particularly important in regulating emotional responses. The hippocampus is thought to be principally involved in storing long-term memories and in making those memories resistant to forgetting, though this is a matter of debate. It is also thought to play an important role in spatial processing and navigation.

How to manage exam stress?

1. Drink a lot of water

I know a lot of people who drink tons of energy drinks during the exam period to help them stay awake and concentrated so they can study better. But this is actually very bad and inefficient.


Two main compounds of energy drinks are caffeine and sugar. When we drink energy drinks, we overload our bodies with these two compounds and get a boost of energy and concentration. In the meantime, our body is doing its best to get the blood sugar levels back to normal and often overdoes it so that our blood sugar levels drop even lower than before the drink. So, you get a boost of energy that goes away as fast as it came, and you end up even more tired and deconcentrated as before. Energy drinks are also bad for your health; they raise the risks of getting type 2 diabetes and several heart problems such as high blood pressure.

Why water?

Water makes up 60-70% of human body weight, participates in metabolism, and maintains electrolyte balance. It also accounts for 75% of brain mass.  A study that was conducted by the University of East London and the University of Westminster found that drinking just 300ml of water can boost attention up to 25%. So next time try drinking a glass of water instead of an energy drink. 

Researchers also found that those who took a bottle of water in the exam room had an average of 5% better results on the exam than those who didn’t. If you’re allowed, I suggest you try taking a bottle of water to the exam room and take a sip now and then to stay concentrated and hydrated. I’ve done that even before I found out that water helps you boost concentration but keep in mind that if you have a tiny bladder you better take tiny sips, speaking from personal experience. We’re not allowed to use the restroom during exams so drink in a way that you won’t have the “I really need to pee” problem (like I did a few times).

2. Ride a bike or walk to school before the exam

If you don’t live too far from your school, try riding a bike or walking there before the exam. Physical activity will relax you and by not driving to school you will avoid the stress of traffic and finding a parking space and by not taking a bus you don’t have to worry whether the bus will arrive on time or should you take the earlier one (in my country buses tend to come late regularly).

3. Focus on your breathing

When you’re stressed, your breathing center thinks you’re in danger and speeds up the breathing so that your organs get more oxygen. When that happens, you become lightheaded and can’t concentrate like you should. If that happens to you, you should focus on your breathing for a minute or two and willingly slow it down. By doing that you’ll be able to calm yourself and continue with the exam calm and concentrated. Also, try taking a sip of water if you have it with you.

4. Cuddle!

Cuddling reduces stress and has a calming effect on our mind and body. Try to cuddle with someone before the exam, may that be your pet, significant other, best friends, brother, sister, parent… one small hug may be enough. You’ll come to the exam calmer and less stressed which will make it easier for you to stay focused and concentrated.

5. Don't answer exam questions chronologically

The way you solve the exam is very important. A lot of people start solving the exam chronologically, before reading it through. This then leads to them not having enough time to finish the exam because they’ve spent too much time on the first task, to which they couldn’t remember the answer right away, panicked, and then made a mistake at the easiest tasks that they would’ve solved correctly had they started with them.

It’s very important that before you start answering exam questions, you go over the exam so that you know what awaits you. Solve the easiest questions and the questions you’re 100% sure of the answer first, and then take time for those you’re not so sure of. By doing that, you can arrange your time better, and if you don’t know all the answers make sure that spend exam time answering those you do know.

I hope this was somewhat helpful and that you won’t panic as much over exams anymore. Remember that the best thing you can do before the exam (for which you’ve studied hard for) is to breathe slowly and calm down. Tell yourself you’ve done everything you could and that you’ve got this. Make sure you drink enough water and that you go to the restroom before the exam.