Stressed out about upcoming exams? A little stress is healthy

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With final exams fast approaching, students are finding themselves under a lot of stress. Stress can be a good thing to motivate us but it’s easy to let it get the best of you. Here are some tips to prevent exam stress from becoming the end of the world.

The reaction to stress is very physiological. Stress itself triggers the fight or flight reaction, which is a reaction to anger, fear and nervousness. Muscle aches and pains, sweating and increased breathing are good indictors that the body is stressed. Stress increases focus and attention and blood is pumped to our brain as well as our muscles.

Long term, consistent stress can take away energy from your digestive and immune systems, so students should prepare to potentially get sick, lose their appetites and crave junk food (fatty and sugary foods are a quick source of energy) during exam time.  Freeman Woolnough, one of UNBSJ’s student counsellors, says your brain might also adapt to the stressful circumstances, “the increase in focus we get from the fight or flight response [can] become a habit with our brains for even smaller things that stress us out, so we’re unable to see the bigger picture,” he says.

Exams can bring with them a sense of finality and relief that the school year has finally ended or dread at the prospect of writing a test worth a huge chunk of your mark. Woolnough says it’s important to define your own personal stressors and to learn to recognize when things are becoming overwhelming. He also recommends having other people help you put your stressors into perspective, “using other people to normalize your stress and talking about it is really important in the student community because we typically believe during exam times that we’re on our own,” he says. “Try to keep your mind in the present because the stress we feel during exams is very future-oriented.” He encourages students to focus on the content of the questions on exams (what is the question asking?) rather than what it’s worth, whether they know the answer or what chapter the answer is from.

“Start working on self-care and healthy habits outside of academics,” says Woolnough. Set up study and exam schedules, but make the time to look after your social, physical and mental needs. “If you want to take a walk around campus once a day, well start that now so that when exam time comes you don’t feel guilt,” he says. Develop some stressor management techniques. It can be anything from physical activity, meditation and yoga to general self-care and changing your outlook of your stressors. Self-care doesn’t reduce stressors in a person’s life, but enables him/her to deal with it better.

Woolnough emphasizes that stress can be a very good thing in terms of motivation, “if students didn’t have any stressors, they wouldn’t perform well. You wouldn’t study for exams if you didn’t have stress at all,” he says. It’s all about achieving a balance.

Student Services offers a number of services to students dealing with the stress of exams. Students can contact Freeman Woolnough or Autumn Chilcote for counselling services or Leigh-Ellen Thomas, the Student Development Coordinator, for help with exam preparation.

Emily is in her fourth year of Political Science. She loves studying and academics which follows into her research work. She's a stern black coffee drinker and is a proud Acadienne. When she's not working or doing school work, you can find Emily listening to 70s music on vinyl and watching Parks and Recreation. If you ask her about parliamentary institutions, she won't stop talking.


  1. In addition to the resources available at ASU Health Services, students will receive extra support during finals week to fight stress. ASU Wellness will host the Well Devils stress-free zones during late-night finals “breakfast” on all four campuses Wednesday, May 1.

  2. School stress is serious business. A 2007 American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) report suggests that for children and teens , too much work and too little play could backfire down the road. “Colleges are seeing a generation of students who appear to be manifesting increased signs of depression , anxiety , perfectionism and stress,” the report says.

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