Exams can cause stress and stress causes changes in your body. The sympathetic nervous system switches on and resulting hormones cause physiological changes in your body. Your heart pounds, breathing gets faster, muscles tense and sweat appears. This is often referred to as the ‘fight or flight’ reaction to a stimulus. It enables you to react quickly to life threatening situations. The signals around the brain happen so fast it is even before the visual centres have had a chance to process what is happening. However our bodies tend to overreact to stressful situations which are not life threatening, such as exams, work pressures, traffic jams etc.
Effects of Stress on your body:
The sympathetic nervous system puts your body into a survival mode. This means your brain is only capable of simple thinking in order to survive. If you are sitting in an exam and your mind goes blank in panic, it may help you to recognise that it is a natural bodily reaction to stress. You have not necessarily forgotten everything you have learned, it is just that your brain has switched to ‘simple thinking’ for a while. This will pass and you will be able to think of more complex information when the stress subsides.
The sympathetic nervous system can also create digestive problems. It is the parasympathetic nervous system which is responsible for digestion happening. You won’t be able to digest food well if you are stressed.
Other considerations during exams:
The brain is not able to distinguish between real and imaginary scenarios. A scary film will stoke the sympathetic nervous system as much as a real situation. To avoid stress in your body before exams, avoid scary films.
Low blood sugar mimics the fight or fight symptoms, so it is important to manage your diet. A good breakfast is essential for keeping a clear head for exams.
Ensure you get enough sleep at night. Have a good routine and do not look at a screen for one hour before bedtime. The light from the screen interrupts your melatonin production, which is crucial for sleep rhythms.
If you are stressed repeatedly over a long period of time, your body can react in more dangerous ways. Chronic stress leads to high blood pressure, increasing the risk of heart attacks and strokes. Long term stress can lead to artery clogging deposits forming. The elevated levels of the stress hormone Cortisol , creates physiological changes. The body’s energy stores get depleted during a stress response, so need to be replenished. The body does this by increasing appetite and storing unused nutrients as fat. Over time, this can lead to a build up of fat tissue and weight gain.
To counter a stress response:
If you feel that sense of panic in your exam, there are steps you can take to stop it. Sit up straight and breathe slowly down to your abdomen. Try breathing in through your nose for a count of 4 and out through your mouth for a count of 8. A few cycles of this will stop the sympathetic nervous system in its tracks and you will be able to think clearly again.
Make sure you also do some regular physical activity. This will ensure better and deeper breathing generally and relieves muscle tension.
Talk to others, whether it is your family or friends, to help you feel connected and give you social support.
A good quality massage is extremely beneficial to aid relaxation, reduce muscle tightness and enable deeper breathing.