Turning exam stress into a positive


Research shows that the way students perceive stress can have a dramatic effect on their performance at exam time. Karen Sullivan explains

Study after study points to the potential dangers of examination stress, with the NSPCC reporting a 200 per cent rise in requests for counselling and its ChildLine service receiving more than 34,000 approaches for help in this area in 2013/14 alone.

The ChildLine National Exam Stress Survey revealed that 96 per cent of the 1,300 students who completed their survey felt anxious about exams and revision, with 59 per cent feeling pressure from their parents to do well and 64 per cent saying they have never received any support in dealing with exams. 

Almost half of pupils say they have skipped meals, two thirds of those surveyed said they have had trouble sleeping and 14 per cent said they drank alcohol as a way of dealing with exam anxiety. This makes for worrying reading at the best of times, but even more so for a generation for whom mental health is at an all-time low.

A great deal of research points to the fact that stress can undermine achievement, particularly in those with high levels of “text anxiety”, and Edge Hill University’s Professor David Putwain has undertaken some excellent research into the impact of stress on academically buoyant students, who appear to be better prepared to deal with the pressures.

There is, however, another argument, and in the absence of any clear way to reduce stress and anxiety in the long term and for all students, it is certainly worth considering.

Rephrasing stress or, if you like, “spinning” it into something positive can actually have a potentially dramatic effect on how students perceive it, respond to it and, ultimately, allow it to affect them. 

There is quite a bit of good research into this concept. For example, Zeidner and Mathews (2005) claim that it is not anxiety per se that is responsible for a negative impact on performance, but how a student copes with or responds to that anxiety. 

What’s more, if anxiety is perceived to be a “serious” medical condition, rather than an acceptance of what is, in many cases, simply normal pre-exam nerves, it becomes a larger problem for students – something for which they begin to seek help, an anxiety in its own right if you like.

Labelling conditions that are ostensibly normal and, in some cases advantageous (see further on), can make things far, far worse by compounding the problem and becoming yet another pressure. Stress is something that we will all experience at various stages of our lives and if we medicalise it, creating the idea that it is a risk to health, we disempower those who are affected by it, reducing their ability to find coping mechanisms that will set them in good stead both throughout their academic careers and beyond.

New research (2013) by Professor Daniela Kaufer and University of California Berkeley post-doctoral fellow Elizabeth Kirby has uncovered exactly how acute stress – short-lived, not chronic – primes the brain for improved performance. 

In studies on rats, they found that significant, but brief stressful events caused stem cells in their brains to proliferate into new nerve cells that, when mature two weeks later, improved the rats’ mental performance. 

Not only is this significant from a learning point of view, but it reinforces the idea that stress actually helps us to adapt, becoming stronger and more resilient in the process.

An interesting American study (Mendes, et al, 2010) looked at 50 college students, some of whom were coached to believe that feeling nervous or excited about a presentation could improve performance. A control group didn’t receive the coaching. Those who believed that nerves were something positive not only performed better, but experienced fewer symptoms of stress and anxiety. An abundance of further research has found the same results in similar situations. 

In the interests of protecting our youth, we may actually be making them more sensitive to stress; by focusing on the harm that stress can cause, we create even more stress. We create fear, which drives anxiety, depression and a wealth of other negative emotions that cause emotional ill-health. 

Instead of giving them methods to cope with stress, we should instead be teaching them to be more resilient to stress, by enhancing the benefits that it can provide and helping them understand that they can, as actors and musicians do when they perform, use their “nerves” (not stress) to their advantage.

Point them in the direction of positive stress experiences – the butterflies they feel before a football match or a dance recital, on a roller-coaster ride, before a date or a long-awaited event, when reading a thriller or watching a horror movie. The physiological symptoms experienced are exactly the same as those associated with “stress”, and yet they are constructive, good, in fact. 

This type of stress is known as “eustress” (as opposed to “distress”) and it can boost motivation, focus, and energy, create a feeling of excitement and, ultimately, improve performance, decision-making and everything else that will help to raise both achievement and wellbeing.

Try rephrasing, spinning the benefits of stress, as students take their exams. They are not stressed, they are nervous in a very normal way about how they will perform; they are excited, stimulated, energised, aroused, all of these symptoms of eustress. It is all about perception, and if you spin it the right way, those nerves can create the conditions of success. It is not stress that makes our students ill, it is their reaction to it.SecEd

  • Karen Sullivan is a best-selling author, psychologist and childcare expert. Email kesullivan@aol.com

Further reading
Mind Over Matter: Reappraising arousal improves cardiovascular and cognitive responses to stress (Mendes, et al, 2010): http://1.usa.gov/1GG0xO0
Photo: iStock


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