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Stress for success: achieving a perfect balance for coping during exams

Updated: Sep 28, 2021

By A.V.

Revision, stress, exams

Exam season is soon approaching for many university students. Students are often stressed when they have to start revising again. It feels like you must get a year's worth of information into your head and perform well on all of your exams.

Additionally, for the second year in a row there is little clarity on whether exams will be in-person or online again. This may be causing students to have disrupted sleep and have greater anxiety.

In this article I will cover some science-backed advice on how to prepare for the exams while staying sane and taking care of your well-being.

1. You need to be stressed to do well. Wait, what?

Yes, you heard me right. One would expect the first tip would be to reduce stress levels during the revision period, but my top advice is to keep the healthy balance of stress (while actually being stressed enough). This phenomenon was coined over a century ago and is called Yerkes-Dodson law. In short, this law states that an optimal level of arousal is needed to perform well on the task. What this means in practice is that if you are not stressed to revise for your exams at all, you will lack motivation and probably will not be as productive as you could have been.


However, if you become too stressed, it will result in a significant drop in productivity because your mind is too preoccupied with anxiety. Essentially, you need to find the perfect balance somewhere in a middle of the continuum, where you are stressed enough to be productive. This balance would be very different for different students, and it could depend on the number of exams you have, types of exams, as well as the personal characteristics of a student. It requires quite a strong level of insight, or knowing yourself well enough, to be able to find this perfect spot.

For example, I usually tend to hover around the not-too-stressed point, which requires me to talk to myself out loud and explain that this piece of work is due next week, we should do something about it. Find what works best for you and share some of your best tips in the comments!


2. Alright, I got myself too stressed. What DO I DO now?

Students however, are normally too stressed.

Students may find themselves overwhelmed with all the information that they’ve learnt/read/written/heard during the academic year. Individuals may find trying to learn the information during the revision period very difficult and may become frustrated. When that happens, I take a nap.

No, it is not because I am lazy (although, who am I kidding), it is because sleep has been shown to be a lot better for our memory than taking a simple break. Recent research suggests that those who took a nap remembered significantly more information long-term than those who crammed without the nap or those who simply rested in between the study sessions. Moreover, naps could be beneficial for reducing stress and some studies even called for adding nap stations in libraries for college students. I personally could not have agreed with this more. As a PhD student I don’t really need to remember much information, but I do love my naps to reduce the level of stress and feel fresh for the late afternoon study session.


3. Friends going out in the middle of your exams AGAIN! Go with them.

This article is beginning to sound like a collection of things NOT to do when you are revising, but remember – it’s not me, it’s science who says that! We have covered planning your time wisely in many previous articles on both mental health and academic achievements.

I am a strong believer that going for a walk or going out with your friends in the evening is extremely useful for balancing out your stress levels after a long productive day of revision. With that being said, I always felt guilty doing something fun during the revision period, even if I planned a little bit of time “for myself”.

However, aside from skyrocketed well-being after a break with your friends, going out for a drink can also have some positive academic impacts. A now very old but still a very respected study suggested that having a little bit of alcohol actually improves your memory, even when compared to participants who did not consume any alcohol. Now, you need to be careful, because the study also suggests that these effects take a u-turn when you consume too much alcohol (so something like a glass of wine is completely cool). Sp there is no excuse for not taking a break - you’re not going out with your friends for fun, but as part of your revision!


4. The most basic piece of advice… Treat yourself.

I am sure you’ve heard this thousand times before, but here I am with a reminder for you.

Do not forget to take time off and treat yourself!

With my previous tips, I have already showed you the importance of taking a break for both your mental health and your academic achievements. Cramming and all-nighters never work in the long run, even if you manage to get away with it a few times.

Plan your work carefully enough so that you can have proper weekends and evenings off. Like I mentioned earlier, I also struggle a lot with allowing myself to take time off. It is a skill to learn early on in your career, and if you don’t manage to force yourself to take time off in your undergrad, it will only get worse if you decide to do a master’s or a PhD.


This list is not an exhaustive list and there are so many other ways to cope. AcademiaOne has other articles on how to write if you have writers block and how to motivate yourself - take a look for more advice.

Share your thoughts and tips in the comments, I would love to hear what you usually do to cope with exam stress and what are some of the things you love to do in your breaks!


A.V. is a Psychology PhD candidate at Queen Mary University of London working on student mental health. She previously completed a BSc Psychology and an MSc Clinical and Mental Health Sciences at University College London. She is a member of the British Psychological Society and an aspiring clinical psychologist, currently working as a crisis counselor.

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