Exam Stress, and how to deal with it

by Maud Millar on November 1, 2018

So, I guess you’re here because you’re suffering from exam stress. I feel you.

It’s probably to do with the impending Mocks of Dooooom- which should be hitting in around four weeks from now. (This makes perfect sense, by the way; four weeks before a big event is when The Fear kicks in.)

But this doesn’t have to be a problem.


The Science of Exam Stress


In a lot of ways, The Fear (aka exam stress) can be a good thing. In the right dosage, it works like a sharpener, giving you that little bit of edge before the exam and getting you into The Zone for revision and superhuman speed-writing. As this article here says, “A little stress around exam time can be a good thing, as it motivates you to put in the work.” It goes on to give a really good rundown of the science behind it all. It has got a few long words in it, but don’t be put off; it’s a really good piece and super-useful to anyone suffering exam stress.

In simple terms, what the article is saying about the science of exam stress is the same thing we discussed in this poston “The Lizard Brain”. Basically, the primal instinct of adrenaline (aka stress) is useful when you need to be on your toes to protect yourself from danger, but our primal instincts nowadays struggle to sort real danger from perceived danger. This means they can get massively overstressed and blow things out of proportion. An exam isn’t actual danger- not like a lion appearing out of nowhere and growling menacingly at you- it’s just an exam. But your stress reflexes care not! To them, it’s danger danger danger in flashing lights, and they go off at you full-blast, all the time, and you get tired and weepy and anxious… And, basically, it’s not very fun for you.


So what do you do to combat exam stress? Here are three really concrete tips. 


1. Shut out the noise


Exam Stress

What White Noise looks like…


The first thing you need to do to keep yourself calm is to silence the loop in your brain that’s shouting danger danger danger. There are lots of ways to do this, but the thing that almost everyone in therapy knows is the value of “white noise” in this situation. White noise is background noise that calms your brain into relaxing and allowing you space to think rationally again. In its simplest form, “white noise” is an actual sound, a bit like a whooshing wind. You can find an example here; this one is made to soothe babies and help them sleep, and it’ll also help you sleep if you’re struggling with anxiety when you turn out the light! As it says in the description, though, it’s also there to help study. This is because it just stops you being able to hear the noise of your sister crying or your brother playing video games or your mum banging pots in the kitchen (all jangling noises that can set a stressed-out brain on edge).


Nowadays, though, we understand there to be more to white noise than just that whooshing sound, and lots of slightly more fun sounds have been found to have the same effect. A waterfall, for example, or a crackling fire, or a rainforest. The important thing is that the sound is constantly peaceful; if it changes too much your brain will hook in too deeply and you’ll start listening when really you want to tune everything out.


There are lots of great places to find apps white noise soundtracks; the App Store has tonnes if you want to download to your phone. Search “White Noise generator” and you’ll find them all, but my personal favourite is Calm. You do have to pay, but it’s just a tonne better than anything else out there, so I don’t mind that so much. And you can get a free trial so if you’re really stressed you can go over there and get started straightaway, for free!


2. Breathe


Exam Stress


Once you have your white noise going, and your brain is settling into a more relaxed state (which will happen after a few minutes of listening, if you just give it a chance), it’s time to do some breathing exercises. These will regulate your breath, which is where you’ll feel your anxiety the most. If you’re deep in the throes of exam stress, what you’ll notice is that your breathing will become really high up in your chest, and you’ll take short, rapid, panicky breaths. These are the opening symptoms of a panic attack, and if you don’t want to have one of those (which you really don’t, believe me!) the only way to halt it and get yourself back to normal is to calm your breathing.


There’s a very well-respected technique called “7-11 breathing”which will sort your breath right out. The basic idea is that you breathe in for seven counts and then out for eleven. If you can’t breathe in and out for that long, you can breathe in for three and out for five, or in for five and out for seven, as long as the out breath is longer than the in breath. The reason this works is because when your breathing gets high and tight, you aren’t actually expelling the carbon dioxide from your lungs, which means you aren’t then refilling them properly with oxygen, which (as you all know from Biology…) means your brain can’t function to the best of its ability. And we want that brain functioning, people! So get breathing out, so you can get breathing in.


If you want some guided help with breathing, the calm website also has a space where you can practice breathing in time with it. It’s really cool; just a circle that expands on a “breathe in” and contracts on a “breathe out.” Give it a go!


3. Make a plan


Exam Stress

Gotta love a Bullet Journal…


Going back to the first postI linked to, the most “simple and very practical step is to develop a plan of action by preparing well and organising your time and workloads. This will help address that “out-of-control feeling”. This is where we come in. 


Study Rocket is a revision planner that keeps everything in one place and adapts to you so you know what you need to do. We help you battle exam stress by making revision clear and removing the complexity from your revision.


We provide clarity, structure and visibility to revision. By showing you everything you need for your exams and adapting to your target grades, performance and habits, we organise a clear plan of action that you can actually achieve.



So what do we give you?


  • A clear revision schedule
  • Organised revision resources
  • Perfect task focus/prioritisation (knowing what to do)
  • Motivation to study
  • Focused and effective revision sessions


So give Calm a try for your white noise and breathing needs, and give us a try for your organisation. If we all work together, we can beat this thing.


Study Rocket. Study Happy.

Stress no more about


Try it now →