Written by: Mayte Parada, PhD
It’s that time of the year again; the time of the year when everything you’ve learned over the semester will be put to the test! For many, exam period is a time when anxiety levels can spike making it difficult to study and the stress can start to feel very overwhelming during this time.
Exam-related stress is very common for both adults and school-aged children, and typically increases in the weeks leading up to the exam period. If you’re the type who suffers from academic stress, these feelings can manifest in a number of ways like headaches, muscle tension, insomnia, difficulties with concentration, racing thoughts, heart palpitations, feelings of frustration, irritability and mood swings.
Some anxiety can be a good thing. Anxiety encourages us to study, to prepare, and to get moving. However, when anxiety reaches the tipping point it can become problematic. Students experiencing high exam stress levels also tend to increase their levels of smoking, alcohol, and caffeine consumption, decrease physical exercise, healthy eating, and self-care habits. This is especially true if they have little social support during these times of high stress (Steptoe, Wardle, Pollard, Canaan, Davies, 1996; Oaten & Cheng, 2005). There is scientific evidence that high levels of exam stress can affect your immune system, making you more susceptible to viruses, allergic reactions, and other immune problems (Marshal et al., 1998).
Knowing how stress impacts you physically and mentally is important so that you remain aware of your self-care habits during stressful times. Eating properly, controlling your smoking, alcohol, and caffeine intake, and making time to exercise are key to keeping your anxiety in check and helping you to get through stressful times.
Here are some evidence-based techniques you can incorporate into your daily routine:
Progressive Muscle Relaxation (PMR): This involves tensing and relaxing the muscle groups in your legs, abdomen, chest, arms, and face in a sequence. You should do this in a quiet place with your eyes closed, tensing the muscle groups for 10 seconds, and then releasing for about 20 seconds before you continue with the next muscle group. Mentally, you want to focus on the feelings of tension and relaxation with each muscle group.
This exercise can take some practice before you are effectively able to relax in a short period of time but it is a very helpful technique for reducing tension, creating a calm mental state, improving your ability to block negative inner thoughts, lowering your blood pressure, and more. Here is an example you can follow to get you started: progressive muscle relaxation video
Relaxation Response (RR): RR is simple and can be done regularly for about 10-20 minutes a day. It involves sitting quietly in a comfortable position while repeating a word, sound, prayer, or phrase while breathing slowly and steadily, and letting go of intruding thoughts when they enter your mind.
Regular practice of this technique can help to reduce blood pressure, improve heart function, and provide you with overall stress relief. Here is a video of the inventor of RR, Dr. Herbert Benson demonstrating this method.
Diaphragmatic Breathing: This is a technique that involves natural, slowed down, breathing that has been a part of Yoga traditions for a long time. Breathe deeply from the diaphragm/belly/abdomen (usually we breath from the top of our chests or lungs). It requires a bit of effort to do this continuously but, when done correctly, it will reduce your oxygen consumption, reduce your heart rate and blood pressure, and increase specific brain activity related to increased levels of alertness. You can practice by doing this several times a day for a few minutes to see the immediate benefits.
Transcendental Meditation (TM): Transcendental meditation is a stress reduction technique that was introduced to the West by an Indian Yogi about 50 years ago. It can be learned by certified teachers throughout Montreal if you need something with more guidance and want to be taught formally. It involves a technique of repetitive tantric sounds specific to each individual to promote a shift in awareness and create a very restful state. Check out some classes in Montreal on TM.
Click on the active links in the article or see our citations here:
Marshall Jr, G. D., Agarwal, S. K., Lloyd, C., Cohen, L., Henninger, E. M., & Morris, G. J. (1998). Cytokine dysregulation associated with exam stress in healthy medical students. Brain, behavior, and immunity, 12(4), 297-307.
Steptoe, A., Wardle, J., Pollard, T. M., Canaan, L., & Davies, G. J. (1996). Stress, social support and health-related behavior: a study of smoking, alcohol consumption and physical exercise. Journal of psychosomatic research, 41(2), 171-180.
Oaten, M., & Cheng, K. (2005). Academic examination stress impairs self-control. Journal of social and clinical psychology, 24(2), 254.
Liza, V., Darviri, C. (2011). Stress management techniques: evidence-based procedures that reduce stress and promote health. Health Science Journal, 5(2).