How to use stress to your advantage during exam time

Expert shares 6 tips to make the extra stress work for you instead of against you.


It’s exam time and you’re feeling stressed, but that can be a good thing, according to a health-care administrator who works with post-secondary students.

Kevin Friese, assistant dean of student health and wellness at the University of Alberta, said students aren’t used to hearing that, “but it’s the truth.

“Too often today there’s a sense in society that as soon as there’s stress we’ve got to get rid of it, and there’s almost this panic,” he said.

But if we have the right skills to recognize stress, and interpret and manage it appropriately, a little stress can be a good thing, Friese explained.

During exam season, a little stress can motivate you to study and help you focus, but if it’s not managed correctly, it can overwhelm you.

Friese shared six tips on what works to manage exam stress well.

Rely on your community

It’s not uncommon for people to say they don’t want to burden their friends, but there’s value in reaching out to say, “I’m feeling really stressed out right now” and to hear back, “I am too! I thought I was the only one.” That’s community, explained Friese, and sharing those feelings can help to reduce stress for both people.

“It’s important to rely on your social supports at this time of year,” Friese said.

Be active

Exam time is when we feel like we don’t have time to get out and exercise, but it’s when we actually need it the most, said Friese.

“All the research out there talks to the fact that when you get out, you get your blood flowing, the neurons start to fire, and your subconscious has time to get all of that fight or flight out of its system,” explained Friese. Then you can get back to work and really focus.

Eat healthy

Eating well and finding healthy options on campus can be difficult for students at this time of year. Friese recommended planning ahead.

“On the weekend, try to take a half-hour to make sure you have some fruits and veggies and granola bars, some healthier options you can pack with you when you know you’re going to be staying late on campus,” he said.

Sleep on it

“Don’t cram!” Friese warned.

Students are better off getting a good night’s sleep and getting up early to study than to try to pull an all-nighter. You won’t retain what you need to if you’re studying into the wee hours, partly because a lack of sleep can have a similar effect on your brain to being intoxicated.

Use your campus supports

Peer supports are available at the U of A for people who need someone to talk to, including the Peer Support Centre and the Community Social Work Team’s Unitea program.

Through the Peer Support Centre, students have access to a free, non-judgmental and confidential team of peers to talk to for support. With the Unitea program, students can book a tea or coffee with someone to just decompress. The Unitea team gets together with everyone, from people who want to practise their English to students who’ve recently gone through a breakup and need somebody to talk to.

“It doesn’t matter what you want to talk about, they’re there,” said Friese. All you have to do is book an appointment with a peer to sit down and talk with them.

Don’t be afraid to ask for help

Finally, don’t be afraid to reach out and ask for support. That can be through a family physician, through programs like Access Outreach and ACCESS Open Minds, or through Counselling and Clinical Services.

“Some of these services become much busier at this time of year, but don’t let that stop you from reaching out,” Friese said.

Don’t be discouraged if the response you receive is a recommendation to a workshop, a group session or, as in some cases, that you might be better supported through a community resource, Friese said.

“You’ll never leave empty-handed, and it’s better to go and seek out the assistance and still get connected, as opposed to not going at all.”