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SUSS It Out!

7 Tips for Dealing with Exam Stress

by Marion Ngo on 2020-11-18T15:08:00+08:00 | Comments

We’re bringing you 7 tips for dealing with exam stress!

1. Breathing and Positive Visualisation

Studies have shown that deep breathing, and visualizing happy, relaxing images have positive effects on stress levels (Valentina et al., 2016). Participants practiced deep breathing exercises for 30 minutes, on top of yawning, imagining doing somersaults between the clouds, remembering tenderness, and more, and this showed a reduction in their salivary cortisol levels after just 10 sessions.

2. Some form of exercise

Moderate to vigorous exercise, whether it’s aerobic or resistance exercise, can help with depression and anxiety. Exercise also has anti-depressive effects (Rebar et al., 2015).

3. Be out in nature

Being out in nature and enjoying the fresh air, greenery, and even being by the water has been shown to improve mental health. This is even more so in a serene environment, with no noise over 30 dB (or noises of construction, traffic). “Serene” sounds would include “winds, birds and insects, which may be interpreted as a certain kind of acoustic biodiversity, and diversity in sounds have in previous research been shown to relate to landscape preference and wellbeing” (van den Bosch, 2015, p.7894,).

4. Take a break; it improves performance

Taking a break helps reduce stress levels, and may improve cognitive performance, especially when you’re feeling overwhelmed! You can choose to take a social break (chatting with friends), a cognitive one (reading the news, watching videos), or a nutritional break (having a snack or drink).

A few experiments have been conducted, where those who took breaks generally performed better than those who didn’t. In an experiment, those who were given a 20-30 minute break performed better in a test. (Sievertsen et al. 2016) Even a 5-minute break shows improvement in some aspects of cognitive performance (Rees et al., 2017).

In one of the experiments (Finkbeiner et al., 2016), those who watched dog videos reported decreased distress, even though it did not affect performance.

5. Be prepared: practice, practice, practice

Repetition makes almost perfect. Most of us would have heard of that famous Ceramics class (as written about in David Bayles and Ted Orland’s Art & Fear), where a group of students was tasked to focus on making one perfect vase (focusing on quality), and those whose work was graded by the weight of their work (focusing on quantity). The highest quality works were all produced by those graded for quantity: the more they made, the more they were able to learn from their mistakes. You can read more of this parable here.

6. Get Enough Sleep

We all know sleep is crucial. Many accidents happen as a result of sleep deprivation. Going without sleep for a day increases your blood alcohol to 0.1; this is higher than the legal limit for driving in Singapore (0.08%).

We certainly wouldn’t recommend you sit for your exams while you’re struggling to stay awake: your pre-frontal cortex helps you remain alert while sleep-deprived, but it’s also the part of your brain that’s associated with executive functioning (Durning et al., 2015). Executive functioning is related to working memory, problem-solving, reasoning, and planning skills. Being sleep deprived dulls your mental acuity, your alertness, and even impairs your cognition – all of which you’ll need to perform in an exam.

You can choose to take a nap, but it’s best to limit it to 15-20 minutes to prevent sleep inertia, which you might experience in the first 30 minutes of waking (Groeger et al., 2011). If not, a 90-minute nap (that is, following a full sleep cycle) has been shown to improve cognitive function (Boukhris et al., 2020). Point is, if you’re tired, you should probably catch some shut-eye.

7. Reward yourself! – Give yourself treats for completing tasks, so you have something to look forward to

Most importantly, don’t forget to reward yourself at the end of your revision, or after your exam! It gives you something to look forward to, and if anything, serves as good motivation for studying hard, and getting your exams over with.

More Resources

For Fun/Stress Relief:

References Used

Art & Fear: The ceramics class and quantity before quality – Excellent Journey. (n.d.). Retrieved November 18, 2020, from

Boukhris, O., Trabelsi, K., Ammar, A., Abdessalem, R., Hsouna, H., Glenn, J. M., Bott, N., Driss, T., Souissi, N., Hammouda, O., Garbarino, S., Bragazzi, N. L., & Chtourou, H. (2020). A 90 min Daytime Nap Opportunity Is Better Than 40 min for Cognitive and Physical Performance. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, 17(13), 4650.

Durning, S. J., Capaldi II, V. F., Artino, A. R., Graner, J., van der Vleuten, C., Beckman, T. J., Costanzo, M., Holmboe, E., & Schuwirth, L. (2014). A pilot study exploring the relationship between internists’ self-reported sleepiness, performance on multiple-choice exam items and prefrontal cortex activity. Medical Teacher, 36(5), 434–440.

Finkbeiner, K. M., Russell, P. N., & Helton, W. S. (2016). Rest improves performance, nature improves happiness: Assessment of break periods on the abbreviated vigilance task. Consciousness and Cognition, 42, 277–285.

Groeger, J. A., Lo, J. C. Y., Burns, C. G., & Dijk, D.-J. (2011). Effects of sleep inertia after daytime naps vary with executive load and time of day. Behavioral Neuroscience, 125(2), 252–260. APA PsycArticles.

Perciavalle, V., Blandini, M., Fecarotta, P., Buscemi, A., Di Corrado, D., Bertolo, L., Fichera, F., & Coco, M. (2017). The role of deep breathing on stress. Neurological Sciences, 38(3), 451–458.

Rebar, A. L., Stanton, R., Geard, D., Short, C., Duncan, M. J., & Vandelanotte, C. (2015). A meta-meta-analysis of the effect of physical activity on depression and anxiety in non-clinical adult populations. Health Psychology Review, 9(3), 366–378.

Rees, A., Wiggins, M. W., Helton, W. S., Loveday, T., & O’Hare, D. (2017). The Impact of Breaks on Sustained Attention in a Simulated, Semi-Automated Train Control Task. Applied Cognitive Psychology, 31(3), 351–359.

Sievertsen, H. H., Gino, F., & Piovesan, M. (2016). Cognitive fatigue influences students’ performance on standardized tests. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 113(10), 2621–2624.

van den Bosch, M., Östergren, P.-O., Grahn, P., Skärbäck, E., & Währborg, P. (2015). Moving to Serene Nature May Prevent Poor Mental Health—Results from a Swedish Longitudinal Cohort Study. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, 12(7), 7974–7989.

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