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Exam stress management

Exams and stress are an inevitable part of university life. However, understanding more about what stress is and how you can balance it out, may help you to function better during this stressful time of the year.

What is stress?

Stress is an extended version of your body’s emergency mode, intended to protect you in the face of extreme physical danger.

When you’re in danger, your body goes into "fight, flight or freeze" mode, ready to react to save you. However, your nervous system struggles to distinguish between a physical threat and an emotional threat. So, exam time might trigger the same "fight, flight or freeze" response that a lion chasing you would cause. When this emergency response lasts for a continued amount of time, it becomes stress. Read on to find out what strategies you can use to manage your stress levels at exam time.

Plan ahead

Infographic showing ways to manage exam stress

Exams come around twice a year, every year. While that is stressful in many ways, it’s also predictable. This means that you know in advance that you will be facing stress during this time, so you can plan ahead to manage your exam time stress.

  • Find out information: Look at various study methods, and read up on time management. Take a look at CCDU’s resources here. There is also a study skills/habits DVD available to view at CCDU.
  • Get up-to-date and be informed: Before you start studying, make sure that you have all the study notes and materials that you will need. If possible, find out all the information that you can about what will be in your exam, and how long it will take.
  • Create a plan: Now that you have some information, how can you put this into action? Perhaps you’ll try new study methods and do a lot of revision. You might want to create an exam schedule (be sure to create one that you will be able to stick to, and revise it if needed).
  • Set achievable goals: To help make your plan realistic, divide your plan into specific, achievable goals. For example: I will revise the work I’ve done for five minutes at the end of every study session. This is easier to follow than: I will do more revision.

Additional Informaiton and Guides on Managing Stress and Time as a Student:

Connect with others

Meeting face-to-face with friends or family can help to reduce your stress levels, whatever is causing your stress. Try to make time to meet up with the people whom you care about. If you can’t meet face-to-face, give someone a call. While Instant Messaging is an option too, getting some real face or voice time is a better way to reduce stress. Some people find that studying in a group is helpful for them, as it provides support and helps to keep them motivated.

Avoid too much social media

Checking your social media feeds instead of studying is a very common way to procrastinate during exam time. You may also find that your classmates are talking about what they are or aren’t studying, which can add to your stress. It’s not realistic to avoid social media completely, but limit the amount of time you spend on it, and don’t engage with threads that leave you feeling more stressed.


During exam time, it’s particularly important to lead a balanced lifestyle to offset the effects of stress. Read on for more general lifestyle tips to help you cope.

Take breaks

Remember to take frequent study breaks during exams, as you won’t be able to concentrate without some down time. Keep your breaks limited to a reasonable time (for example 15 minutes between sessions), and then return to your work.


Exercise helps to counteract the negative effects of stress hormones, and also boosts your mood. Try to find a type of exercise that you enjoy, which can be as simple as taking a walk outside. You can also include small amounts of exercise in your day, like walking the long way around to lectures, or climbing up and down the stairs. Exercise is a great way to make use of study breaks.


Take the time to fit in some relaxation when you can. You can try Mindfulness, relaxation exercises or breathing exercises. Just spending some time in nature can really help with relaxation. Wits has more nature on campus than you might think. Try a visit to the pond on West campus to clear your head.

Not every type of relaxation suits everyone. Read up on a few, and try out ones that sound interesting. Relaxation takes practice, so it may take you a while to start feeling the benefits.

Eat a healthy diet

Eating more nutritious food helps your body cope better when you’re dealing with the physical effects of stress. It is natural to opt for junk food when you’re stressed, but try to choose healthier options instead. For example, choosing brown bread over white bread is more nutritious, and try swapping out junk food for healthier options, such as fruit or dairy.


Getting enough rest helps your body to combat the effects of stress. Make time to have some down time and try to get to bed early enough.

Stress can affect your sleep, so try some basic sleep hygiene (try 'getting better sleep') practices to help you get a better night’s rest.

Change how you think about the situation

Sometimes it’s helpful to change how you view the situation, if you are not able to change the situation itself. For example, you can see exams (which you cannot change) as a way to really engage with your field, and reaffirm the end result (getting your degree) - rather than just a horrible time to get through.

Summing up

Overall, there are a lot of steps that you can take to better manage your stress during exam time - from lifestyle changes to planning ahead. Remember that some exam stress is inevitable, and even healthy in that it gets you working. However, aim for balance to help you perform at your best.