Hacking Exam Stress Through Psychological Science

Test Anxiety ReliefBy Sarah D. Pressman

Exam stress is unavoidable. We know that every year—at the end of the academic term– millions of college students around the world start gearing up for their least favorite educational activity: Finals. While exams are unavoidable, the negative wellbeing consequences of super-stressful exam periods can be stopped (or at least diminished) by using some of the clever scientific findings from the psychological literature. As a health psychologist who specializes in the physiology of stress, I am all too familiar with the horrendous effects that stress can have on the body. For example, studies have shown that stress can weaken components of your immune system, can increase your risk for getting a cold or a flu, and of course, can put you in a terrible mood and can result in debilitating anxiety. So what can you do to protect yourself from the ills of test-stress?

Here are 5 simple research-based “hacks” that might help you survive this exam season without getting sick, and maybe with a (small) smile on your face.

1. Hug.

The wide ranging and incredible benefits of your social network is probably one of the most powerful phenomena in all of psychology. Relevant here, is what your network can do for you during times of stress. Research has shown that one of the factors that is most helpful for buffering people against difficult times is having help available from other people. This help can come in many flavors: Emotional support (e.g., a hug or a shoulder to cry on), tangible support (e.g., someone lending you their notes or helping you with something you don’t understand), informational (e.g., advice on how to study), or your friends may even just provide that sense of belonging and security that we all need. Research has shown again and again that people who feel supported persist better during times of stress. They are less anxious, depressed, have better health, and manage their health better. With this in mind: reach out to your friends and family when you are feeling bad.

One caveat: be careful with your social network when you are feeling really stressed. Social support is not the only thing that your friends offer you. They also offer you germs. Exam time could also be called “sick time” on most college campuses given the overflow of students hitting the health centers with colds, flus, and worse. Given this, hanging out with lots of friends might also mean lots of exposure to viruses and bacteria. Hamrick and colleagues (2002) showed that this exposure isn’t necessarily a problem when you are healthy and unstressed, but when the stress level in your body hit “red alert” levels, your immune function gets suppressed and can’t fight off those invasive agents nearly as well, and as a result, you might get sick. So use your friends to help you survive exams, but also use hand sanitizer!

2. Smile.

Smiling might be the last thing you feel like doing under stress, but it turns out it can actually help. My own work has shown time and time again that positive emotions are strongly related to better health and lower stress, but of course, it’s hard to be happy when facing countless finals. There are many positive emotion induction techniques that you can try out to break the negativity tied to stress (e.g., writing about things you are grateful for, watching your favorite funny youtube.com clip), but one of my favorites is to simply smile. Our research has shown that activating a big sincere Duchenne smile (the kind where your eyes are crinkled and your mouth is smiling) not only makes you feel better during times of stress, but it actually helps your heart rate return to normal levels after stress, even if you aren’t happy. That’s right! Faking a smile for a few moments, can actually help you feel less threatened about the whole exam thing. This is due to a phenomenon called the “Facial Feedback Hypothesis” which has shown that the simple act of activating muscles in your face can actually enhance the relevant emotions in your mind. You can try this out while studying: just hold your pen in your mouth sideways, push it all the way back in your mouth as far as it will go, and bam- you are smiling! Instant anti-stress.

3. Breathe.

Interestingly enough, one of the strange things that happens to our bodies when we get really stressed is that we forget to breathe and/or change our breathing rates in unhealthy ways. For example, our breathing gets shallow and rapid. You may have even noticed that you hold your breath during a really anxiety provoking situation. What you may not know is that breathing incorrectly can actually make your body more stressed as it doesn’t allow the relaxation arm of your nervous system (the parasympathetic nervous system) to work correctly. Fortunately, breathing is one of the few physical stress responses that we CAN control and simple breathing exercises have been shown to lower blood pressure and heart rate, reduce stress hormones, and improve feelings of energy, calm, and wellbeing. Exercises can be as simple as “equal breathing” where you inhale for a count of four and exhale for a count of four (all through the nose). Counting while breathing gives you the double benefit of distracting you from those rushing stressful thoughts going through your head, while also giving you the relaxing parasympathetic system activating effects at the same time. Other breathing techniques as well as numerous on-line meditation activities that focus on the breath can be found with a simple google search. Take a 10 minute breathing break and improve your stress and health!

4. Sleep.

This tip is probably the hardest one for any of you to follow. Most adults need 7-9 hours of sleep per night to be healthy and happy, however, we know that the vast majority of undergraduate students are not getting anywhere near this much sleep. During exams, this problem intensifies. Why does this matter for stress? Not getting enough sleep will actually trigger an endless cycle of stress on your mind and body for numerous reasons. First, by not sleeping you are putting yourself in a depressed mood. This makes it more likely for you to experience stress and be reactive to negative events. Next, sleeping can actually hurt your studying abilities. Studies have shown that a lack of sleep can damage attention, memory and cognition, making it more difficult for you to learn, making you have to stay up longer and sleep less, and the cycle continues. Finally, from a biological perspective, your body needs sleep to regulate its complex physiological systems. Without enough sleep your immune system is compromised, your hormones dysregulated, and your metabolism wrecked. As we know, this dysregulated function again puts you at risk for catching the cold of your roommate when they sneeze on you. Do your body, mind, and stress levels of favor, and try to get enough shut eye to maximize your exam performance and keep you healthy.

Having trouble sleeping? Get some tips from the National Sleep Foundation here.

5. Think.

Finally, it is important to remember that psychological stress is—by definition– predominantly in your head. Our body’s stress response evolved to help us survive the kinds of troubles that prehistoric humans faced (e.g., imagine what your body would need to do now if a lion was chasing it). Specifically, it’s revving you up to prepare you for fight and flight. Unfortunately, your body’s needs when studying for exams doesn’t typically match what your body needs to fend off a wild animal attack. Thus, there are a few things you can do. One, remind yourself that this stressor isn’t actually life or death. Stress responses are driven by what thought processes are going on in your head and your perception of the stressor. If you can trick your mind into perceiving the stress as less threatening, your body will follow.

Talking to friends, smiling, slow breathing, and sleeping will all help with this calming effect, but so will self-talk to yourself to try to calm yourself down. Focus on what you are good at and what is important to you (besides these exams). Research has shown that self-affirmations can help reduce stress. Avoid destructive thought patterns (e.g., “I’m a failure!”) and instead focus on having self-compassion for yourself. Remember, psychological stress is all about the perception. If you can perceive stress in the right way, you will find that not only can you manage it better, but you can also keep yourself healthy in the process.

[Sarah Pressman is an assistant professor of psychology at University of California, Irvine. She researches the connections between stress, health & happiness. She is the co-author of the Noba module “The Healthy Life” – https://nobaproject.com/chapters/the-healthy-life]

Republished with permission from the Noba Project

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