Exam stress: 5 best strategies to beat stress and study better

exam stress
Source: AFP

Exam stress — it’s universal. We’ve all been there and suffered that.

Some of us, however, went through more. Students in the US are reported to be “the most stressed students.”

While the stress rate of a regular American stands at 4.8, teenagers in students in the US have a stress rate of 5.8

According to the American College Health Association, 41% of American college students reported feeling anxiety.

More than one in five college students say that anxiety has had a negative impact on their academic performance.

These statistics are disturbing, but let’s not discount the exam stress felt by students in other parts of the world. 

Female university students in Japan were found to feel slightly more stressed than their male counterparts. Source: AFP

In the UK, University College London (UCL) found that exam stress is putting the mental health of pupils at risk.

In Australia, 88% of the 1,000 students surveyed by ReachOut admitted to feeling stressed about their studies at some point over the past year. 

A record number of students in Japan skipped school for more than 30 days last year, and experts are citing academic pressures as one of the reasons. 

There is a general anxiety that is filling young people with dread. 

A UNICEF and Gallup survey of 21 countries found that about one in five young people aged 15 to 24 said they often feel depressed or have little interest in doing things.

Some suggest that stress is ageing Gen Z like milk

So much so a TikTok video by 26-year-old Jordan Howlett went viral for emphasising how people have often mistaken him for twice his age, and he is not the only one. 

While exam stress is high on the list of reasons for young people’s anxiety, there are other factors, too. Which is worse?

What’s more stressful: Exams or life?

What are students stressed about? Here’s the short version:

  • Climate crisis and an uncertain future
  • Finding a job that makes a positive impact
  • Long-term financial stability
  • Pressure from parents
  • Bullying or peer pressure

While this list is non-exhaustive, it covers the main stressors. 

Studies have found that finals are tough on students too.

About 31% claim that exam stress holds the number one spot. Next in line are concerns about getting a job felt by 24%, and high workloads reported by 23%. 

As a student enters university, what they’re stressed about evolves.

Navigating the world on your own for the first time is certainly daunting, not to mention the challenges of making new friends and getting used to a new environment.

For international students, the addition of being part of a new culture and sometimes language can heighten the pressure further.

If this is you, read on for expert tips on how to stave off exam stress and study better.

exam stress

That moment when your results come out is when you let out a sigh of relief. Source: AFP

Do these top five tips for exam stress actually work?

“Stress is there for a reason,” says Emma K. Adam, professor of human development and social policy at Northwestern University in Illinois.

“It’s there to help mobilise you to meet the demands of your day, but you’re also supposed to have times where you do shut down and relax and repair and restore.”

While stress can help you move forward, for many, it can also completely halt your progress or cause you to regress. 

As a student, you’re probably Googling tips for handling stress, especially exam stress, often.

And you’re following the usual advice, like exercise and breathing.

But when yoga, meditation, and other go-to methods don’t work, perhaps it is time to get professional help. 

Physical symptoms of chronic stress include headaches, stomach problems, and sleep disturbances. It can also lead to anxiety and depression. 

Be it a therapist or a counsellor, having an outside perspective gives you handy tools to manage your exam stress.

While this is helpful for more extreme cases, are there methods that can help in the meantime?

We have investigated the top seven tips to determine how they could help and might be counterintuitive. 

exam stress

Some many vitamins and supplements are marketed for reducing stress. It’s best to consult your doctor before you start anything. Source: AFP

1. Vitamins and supplements for exam stress 

The real key to a healthy body and mind is eating right.

How balanced your diet is can impact how stressed you feel. 

But what if you’re already eating right and still feeling stressed about your upcoming finals?

While there are experts that caution the science surrounding supplements as “murky,” Miranda LaBant, N.M.D., a naturopathic doctor at Brio-Medical Cancer Clinic in Scottsdale, Arizona says they can play a “supportive role” in managing stress.

“… but they are most effective when integrated into a comprehensive stress management strategy,” she says.

Here are some of the recommended supplements:

While many supplements claim to help reduce stress, there are more effective ways to improve your general health.

“Taking vitamins separately from foods is not as effective as eating the whole food,” says Melissa Majumdar, a registered dietitian and metabolic and bariatric coordinator with Emory University Hospital Midtown in Atlanta.

“Whole foods also contain other benefits such as fibre and can be less expensive than vitamins.

“Furthermore, by adding more fruits, vegetables and other plant-based foods, we tend to eat less of foods that cause stress to the body: saturated fat, added sugars and red or processed meat.”

exam stress

A sun salute always feels nice. Source: AFP

2. Exercise and move your body

Perhaps one of the most prescribed methods of tackling exam stress is exercise.

Movement and exercise can pump your body with endorphins, a hormone that relieves pain, reduces stress, and improves mood.

That is not to say that you need to be intensely working out. Rather, find something that makes you enjoy sweating for a long time.

A leisurely stroll is a good start (plus you can walk through nature which is also good for your mental health).

The Anxiety and Depression Association of America  (ADAA) reports that exercise is the most popular stress-coping technique.

A poll found that 29% preferred walking, 20% running and  11% yoga.

If you’re not one to visit the gym on the regular, attending a class can be a great way to get started.

Be it a dance class, martial arts, cycling or swimming, getting your sweat on can certainly help curb exam stress.

exam stress

Screens and technology add to exam stress. Source: AFP

3. Screen detox

The digital world is always in our faces, from phones to laptops and TV screens. It often feels like there is no escaping it. 

It feels even more overwhelming when you use technology to help you study. When trying to focus, it is easy to get distracted by social media or other more fun apps. 

American Psychological Association’s annual Stress in America survey found that a fifth of US adults (around 18%) cited technology use as a significant source of stress in their lives.

Technology might add to exam stress for many students, and having a screen detox would help reduce its impact. 

A digital detox can also improve your sleep and mental health, provide more time for quality relationships and increase productivity. 

An ideal scenario would involve having a few days out in nature away from all screens so that you can relax, read and reflect.

However, this is not accessible to everyone. With your personal workload or commitments, you may need to be contactable. 

You can start with having an hour a day without your phone, seated in a quiet space. You can meditate, read or even learn a new skill.

There are other habits you can develop to reduce your screen time stress, including:

  • Unplug before bed.
  • Set screentime limits on yourself.
  • Disable notifications.
  • Create spaces in your home where screens are not allowed.
  • Take a break from your screen with walks.
  • Make your digital detox a challenge/game so you find the idea more fun. 
exam stress

Mind racing? Try focusing on the present. Source: AFP

4. Meditation, breathing and sleep

When you get an anxiety attack, the first thing you are told to do is breathe. 

Think back to comedies and cartoons — when someone hyperventilates, you hand them a paper bag to help control their breathing. 

The UK government has step-by-step instructions on how to breathe deeply to relieve stress: 

  1. Sit comfortably with a straight back.
  2. Place your left hand on your chest, and right hand below it, on your diaphragm.
  3. Inhale deeply through your nose for five seconds.
  4. Hold your breath for two seconds.
  5. Exhale slowly through your mouth.
  6. Feel the expansion in your diaphragm.
  7. Repeat for one or two minutes until you feel calm.

Incorporating breathing exercises and practising mindfulness helps some people. 

An eight-week study found that “mindfulness meditation” reduced the inflammation response caused by stress and helped reduce anxiety. 

If you struggle to quiet your mind, consider a guided meditation session or calming music to help you.

The Guardian even has a list of ways to meditate without meditating

Many lists state that practising good sleep hygiene is the perfect stress management method. 

The National Sleep Foundation found that around 70% of high school students get less than the recommended eight to 10 hours of sleep per night.

Only 40% of American college students feel they get a proper amount of sleep for only two days out of a week.

Research has found that having good quality sleep for the right amount of time is associated with better academic performance in college students. 

One study states that sleep measures accounted for nearly 25% of the variance in academic performance

exam stress

Picking up a hobby, where you use your hands or make something, can help relieve exam stress. Source: AFP

5. Do something that brings you joy

The main issue with this advice is how vague it is. 

As a young student, you are still figuring out who you are and your interests. 

However, you could start by making a list of things you like doing alongside a list of things you would like to try.

Taking a break from your busy study schedule to try something new or practice a hobby can give your brain a chance to recuperate. 

“If you force yourself to keep going, it could make your anxiety even worse,” says Nicola Anderson, who was once the MyTutor CMO. 

“If it’s your first time sitting an exam, it’s completely OK to feel nervous […]. Just know that the build-up is the worst, and once exams are over, you’ll have weeks to chill out and live your best life!”

Here’s a list of quirky activities you could engage in to take a break and relieve exam stress:

  • Have a tea party with friends
  • Attend a sip-and-paint workshop
  • Go for a pottery class
  • Learn a new skill on YouTube
  • Play a videogame
  • Go for a movie in the cinema
  • Walk in your favourite park
  • Call a close friend or family and chat about life
  • Join a new club or society
  • Try out a dance class