Managing Study Stress Part 1: The science of stress & what happens to us when we worry about exams

18/07/2017 10:00AM


If you’re a student, exams are an unavoidable part of life. Most people find them stressful. Why? Well, because no one wants to let themselves or their family down, or to have invested in a costly course they don’t do well in. While being a little nervous about exams is totally normal, excessive stress can be harmful and prevent you from reaching your full potential — something we want to help you avoid. So, we caught up with Dr Margaret Osborne, a performance anxiety psychologist, to talk about the science of stress and how you can reduce its impact to achieve your best. 

There’s a lot to learn so we broke it up into two parts. In this blog, we’ll explore the psychology and physiology of stress. And in Managing Study Stress Part 2, we explain how to effectively manage stress and perform well under pressure.

Hi Margaret, could you tell us a bit about yourself and your experience with performance anxiety?  

I’m a registered psychologist and postdoctoral research fellow at the University of Melbourne and I specialise in helping people overcome phobias, public speaking fears and performance anxiety. I have over 17 years of consulting experience and I’m an internationally recognised leader for my research on music performance anxiety. 

I had a horrid choke moment in my Year 12 final clarinet and classical voice exam. It was a new venue, with a poor set up and everything just caved in on me. It put me off music until my mid-twenties when I took up singing again while studying psychology at Macquarie University. It just so happened my singing teacher at the time was finishing up his masters in performance anxiety in opera singers and needed a research assistant — so I jumped at the chance. I went on to complete my PhD and today I work with leading performers and athletes to help train their minds to be primed for success.

What are the main driving factors that cause students to get stressed about exams? 

When people are asked to speak in front of others, put in new situations, or asked to take a test, they tend to worry. What if I can’t answer the questions? Will I be as good as my colleagues? How will I ever get a job if I don’t get a High Distinction? These are just some of the scary thoughts that we might think about. And when we feel afraid of these perceived negative outcomes, our brains respond in a specific way. 

How does the brain respond when we feel stressed about study or exams?

When we’re under pressure or perceive a threat, a hormone called corticotropin-release factor (CRF) is released from a very primal area of our brain called the amygdala. This hormone has direct effect on neural firing rates — increasing them dramatically — and so the fear detection areas of our brains become very agitated. Essentially, CRF is activating our pre-historic ‘flight or fight’ response that makes us feel panicky and start to experience symptoms like shortness of breath, a racing heart, sweating or butterflies.

This response to a stressful situation or threat happens to everyone and is totally normal. Most of the time we’re not in any real danger (like taking an exam) and our symptoms will resolve themselves as long as we don’t dwell on the scary thoughts or we reframe them into positive thoughts like ‘I’ve worked hard and this exam is my chance to shine’. However, in some cases this CRF response can cause anxiety or depression because when our brains become highly agitated, we can start to have problems sleeping and begin to focus excessively on negative thoughts.

Can stress affect our ability to learn effectively when studying for exams?

Yes it can. Stress can stimulate the brain into a heightened state of cognition to be able to respond to threats. While this hyper-alertness is crucial in helping protect us from real dangers, such as if someone is trying to attack us, being in this fight or flight mode can have adverse effects on our ability to learn if it’s happening in a non-threatening educational setting. Why? Well, research has shown that the hormones released when we’re stressed target the hippocampus — the brain’s primary structure involved in helping us store and recall facts and memories. When our mind is under siege from stress hormones — called corticosteroids — they hijack the hippocampus and disrupt the neurological processes that allow us to learn. So, it’s very important that we’re in a relaxed state when we study or sit an exam so that our brains are in the best shape to be able to absorb and retrieve information.

When does ‘good’ stress become ‘bad’ stress?

It used to be thought that anxiety equalled impaired performance. However, more recent research suggests that some stress is actually beneficial, especially when we learn to reframe our thoughts to see this stress as a positive or exciting energy we can harness for success.  However, if we start to let self-doubt creep in or focus on the symptoms of our anxiety (racing heart, shortness of breath, etc) then stress becomes bad because it will sabotage our ability to perform well. And if stress or anxiety causes us to avoid taking on challenges (such as sitting exams or going on a work placement) then I’d say it’s problem we need some help to address.

Join us in our next blog — Managing Study Stress Part 2 — for advice on how to keep nerves under control and perform when the pressure is on.

If you're struggling with anxiety and stress, then check out Beyond Blue and This Way Up  for some great resources on how to stay in a good headspace.