Tips for Students: How to Cope with Exam Stress

New research from the Lebanese University suggests that a large number of university students in the Arab world experience spikes of stress during end-of-term, notably before exams.

The study shows that students were poor judges of their own stress levels—often underestimating how tense they are—which highlights the need for students in the region to be more proactive in managing their stress. (See a related article, “Lebanese University Researchers Zero in On Students’ Stress and Depression.”)

Stress is linked to a whole host of long and short-term health problems, but fortunately there are a number of ways to manage and mitigate that pressure.

Recognize Stress 

The first stage in stress management is to recognize the symptoms. Stress is the body’s chemical reaction to high-pressure situations—this is sometimes known as the “fight-or-flight” response. The body releases stress hormones, mainly adrenaline, noradrenaline and cortisol, which help it to cope with what it perceives as a threat or a danger. Essentially, this puts the body on a war footing: It increases the heart and breathing rates to get more oxygen distributed around the body, and it also tenses muscles and raises the blood pressure.

This can be helpful in the moment, making us hyperaware, but it also causes unwanted symptoms. These can include headaches, muscle aches, heartburn, heart palpitations and sleep problems, and women can miss their periods. In the long run stress is also linked to a higher risk of depression, fertility issues, erectile dysfunction, heart attacks and a weakened immune system.

Stress can also lead to changes in appetite, a rise in alcohol and caffeine consumption, and an increase in pessimistic thoughts.

Sleep Is Important 

Research has suggested that a large percentage of the population in the Arab world isn’t getting enough sleep. (See a related article, “Sleepless in Beirut: A Health Risk.”)

That’s a shame because sleep is one of the best ways to cope with stress—it allows the body time to reset to normal. During exam preparation time it can be tempting to pull all-nighters, but any benefit gained from the extra study will likely be offset by the loss of sleep. Research has consistently shown that academic performance in exams is correlated with sleep quality.

Fortunately, there are tried and tested ways to increase the chances of a good night’s rest. It’s important to maintain a consistent sleep schedule, both going to bed and getting up at roughly the same times each day. Research shows consistency is key here. People who stick to their bedtimes night after night are more likely to sleep well. (See a related article, “What Science Says About Getting Good Sleep.”)

In the months of preparation time, the routine of lifestyle factors like diet and exercise can make a positive difference.

Mazen Kurdi
a professor of biochemistry at the Lebanese University  

Eat Well

A stressed body will crave junk food. That’s unfortunate because taking in extra calories doesn’t help with stress. Studies have shown that vegetable consumption is lower in stressed and depressed individuals than those who aren’t feeling under pressure.

The Mayo Clinic recommends being mindful of diet in efforts to combat stress—that means eating at least five portions of fruit or vegetables a day, staying hydrated and limiting sugar and salt intake.

“In the months of preparation time, the routine of lifestyle factors like diet and exercise can make a positive difference,” says Mazen Kurdi, a professor of biochemistry at the Lebanese University who was involved with the study to map the spikes in stress caused by exams.


Much like eating well and getting enough sleep, this is another part of being healthy in general, but it also has specific benefits in times of stress. A recent study looked at the levels of stress hormones in a group of men who exercised regularly in response to stress. The researchers then compared that to a group of men who didn’t exercise. They found that those who exercised regularly showed smaller fluctuations in stress hormones, adding to the theory that regular exercise helps to boost the body’s resilience to stress.

Do Something Else

The Mayo Clinic recommends doing something to distract momentarily from whatever is causing the stress. Exercise is one example. It provides an opportunity to tune out and detach from the anxiety over studying by focusing the mind on some other activity. Social contact with friends and family is also a good way to achieve this, but so too are activities like yoga, reading or taking a walk. Doing something that isn’t related to studies and exam preparation at least once a day can refresh the mind and get stress levels down.


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