One Banana Task

How to Combat Exam Stress: Your Top Ally is Your Brain

Stress and Performance

The relationship between stress and performance takes an inverted “U” curve.

A small amount of stress can be a key motivator and actually boost performance. However, past a limit, stress gives our confidence a beating leading to fast decline in performance.

That said; there is no avoiding stress in today’s world. It is a given.

Thus, the common way stress affect us is that it accumulates over time. At first, it is a brilliant motivator. However, it accumulates to a point where we suffer a sudden and severe drop.

You may call this point of falling off, the “fear cliff.”

Stress and Fear

The line between stress and fear is thin and blurry.

When we reach the tip of the fear cliff, any additional stress at that point pushes us into fear territory.

Fear territory is not a fun place to be.

Two things happen when you ‘cross the Rubicon’.

  • You immediately lose sight of all the good intentions you had and crawl back into your comfort zone
  • We use the past as a solid indicator of our future—such that we believe that a mistake made in the past will be made again

Tackling Exam Stress

The primary advice you should note when tackling exam stress is to avoid the “fear cliff.”

It sounds obvious, but many are often not wary enough of it and fall off.


The first step to take is to think about your goals in advance. Your targets should be realistic.

You should understand that the effectiveness of how long you study is not an arithmetic progression. Four hours of study is not twice as effective as two hours of study.

Research findings back this assertion. Effective concentration by the human brain lasts for only about 45 minutes. After this period, your concentration levels dip.

Accordingly, the recommended practice is to split your day into hour-long chunks.

Forty-five minute would be for utmost concentration. Then 10 to 15 minutes left in the hour would be your break. Always plan breaks into your revision schedule.


After planning your time, you would often find that you have a heap of materials to study with varying difficulty of understanding.

On first glance, you may want to dig into the easy stuff first. Do well to beat that urge.

The better way is to do the hard stuff at the beginning.

At the start, your brain is still fresh, and so will be more effective at tackling the hard tasks. Later on, you can cool down with the easier tasks.

The Attitude Ladder

Nonetheless, taking all these decisions require a great deal of positive thinking or the right attitude.

This can be dicey when exam is right around the corner and you still have a couple of stuff to go through.

However, it is very important to manage your thoughts. A viable way to do so is using the concept of an “attitude ladder.”

This concept requires you to visualize a ladder. Take the lower rungs as negative opinions, and the higher rungs as the positive thoughts.

For example, the lower rungs can be “This is beyond me,” “I have no idea of what to do,” “I wish I could do it”; while the third rung would be “I will do it,” the second rung as “I can do it,” and the third rung as “I did it.”

The aim when revising or tackling exams is to be at the top of the ladder, preferably on any of the first three rungs.

Getting to this point requires you to speak positively to yourself. If it sounds like too much, imagine how you would speak positively to your best friend if he or she were in your shoes.

Thus, concerning revision, you have to be your own best friend.

Stay in Charge

While you are planning, prioritizing, and maintaining a positive state of mind; it is easy to forget that you cannot control everything.

However, this shouldn’t be a reason to let yourself fall off the fear cliff.

Rather, you should take an enlightened position by identifying the factors you can control and take charge of these factors.

Avoid wasting your time brooding on the “should haves” and “could haves.”

You can’t have it all. It may not be perfect. Nonetheless, your fantasizing about retrospective perfection is not helpful to you.

Furthermore, you should play down pessimism, often characterized by “what ifs?” An example is “what if a question centers on my worst topic?” Rather than cloud your mind with this negativity, exude optimism with thoughts like “what if I get question on my best topic?” Preoccupy your thoughts on what could go right for you.

Stop Catastrophizing

Catastrophizing refers to making a bigger deal of something, much like believing that something is far worse than it actually is.

You should stop this act. No one gets through life without hiccups.

Therefore, that unfortunate occurrence in your academics, say failing an exam, does not have a knock-on effect for the rest of your life. Often, a Plan B is in store, say a resit.

Don’t stress out just yet. It is just a bump you would eventually go over.