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Advice and Counselling Service


Stress about exams and coursework deadlines 

Read our advice on managing exam anxiety

Exams and academic assessments are designed to test your academic performance under a certain amount of stress, such as performing under exam conditions or completing a piece of work by a deadline. We often need a certain level of stress to help us to perform well.

Feeling ‘fit to sit’ is not about being on peak performance or feeling like you can perform at 100% efficiency – this is not realistic for anybody. It is quite common to feel anxious in the run up to an exam, to find it difficult to eat and to have a bad night’s sleep. However, this doesn’t necessarily mean you are not ‘fit to sit’. Read more about extenuating circumstances and the 'fit to sit' policy here.

Having ordinary feelings of stress or anxiety is part of everyday life, and it doesn’t necessarily mean that you are unwell or have mental health difficulties. Building emotional resilience is useful, as it will help you to manage the day to day stresses that we all feel at certain times.

Studying can be demanding, particularly at times of extra pressure such as exams, deadlines and presentations. There are also other factors in your student experience which might cause stress, for example, living away from home, cohabiting with other students, or money issues. Improving your emotional resilience will help you perform better in your studies and will prepare you for the stresses of working life. Read more on building emotional resilience.

The Counselling Service at the University of Oxford have produced 3 very short podcasts to help students prepare for exams:

Part one: getting into the right mind set: 12 mins, 18 secs

For any student who is preparing to take examinations at any point in their course. The podcast aims to start to identify ways of achieving a balanced approach to thinking about examinations. It offers some practical tips for overcoming different obstacles to examination preparation and suggests how to move away from over-thinking into a phase of active planning.

Part two: planning and revision: 10 mins, 7 secs

Part 2 includes useful reminders of how to start planning for revision by taking stock of knowledge to date and starting to plan and timetable your revision. There are also some ideas to help you make the most of your revision time and to help make it effective and engaging.

Part three: before, during and after the examination: 8mins, 5 secs

This podcast focuses on the examination itself – and just before it – and what might help you to feel prepared. There are also some ideas for how to cope both in the examination and after the examination. This section also includes two brief exercises: a breathing exercise and a centring technique

Stress response

Stress is our emotional and physical response to pressure and is a normal part of life in that we all experience it from time to time. Low levels of stress can be useful, helping us to concentrate on a goal, or highlighting something that we need to change. However, too much stress can start to get on top of us and interfere with our lives.

Student life is fraught with potential stressors – everything from giving presentations to writing essays to taking exams - not to mention the added pressure if you are living away from home. This makes learning about stress and how to manage it better an important skill.  

If we think we can’t cope with the demands on us then a stress response is activated in the body. This instinctive stress response is known as ‘fight or flight’.

Our physiological response to stress evolved to prepare our ancestors for action when confronted by a wild animal. A split-second decision had to be made whether to stand their ground and fight or turn and run as fast as possible. Our bodies still respond in the same way, releasing the hormones adrenaline and cortisol.

What is adrenaline?

Adrenaline causes rapid changes to your blood flow and increases your breathing and heart rate, preparing you to fight or to run away. You become pale, sweat and your mouth becomes dry.

If the threat is physical (i.e. you are being attacked by a bear), then you use the effects of the adrenaline appropriately to fight or to run.

But if the ‘threat’ is emotional, the effects of adrenaline subside more slowly, and you may feel agitated for a long time. If the cause of stress is long-term, you may always be tensed up and this is very bad for your physical and mental health.

What is cortisol?

Cortisol levels increase in response to danger and stress. Short-term positive effects include a quick burst of energy and decreased sensitivity to pain. But long-term stress means cortisol builds up and creates a number of health problems (such as increase in abdominal fat storage, decreased bone density and high blood pressure).

So, stress is actually harmful?

At low levels stress can be a positive thing because it stimulates motivation, creativity and learning, but as stress increases, it can become unhelpful and reduce our ability to function and think clearly and can get out of proportion to the actual level of danger or demand.

Severe stress that continues for a long time may lead to depression or anxiety as well as the health problems related to high levels of adrenaline and cortisol.

How do I know if I’m too stressed?

There are a number of physical symptoms that suggest you are under too much stress. Becoming aware of your own response to stress, which is different for everyone, can help you recognise early signs of stress in the future. For example,

• Fast shallow breathing
• Headaches
• Sleep problems
• Grinding your teeth

There are also lots of clues in your behaviour, thoughts and feelings that can signal too much stress, such as:

• Finding it difficult to make decisions
• Being snappy and irritable
• Loss of concentration
• Finding it difficult to talk to others

Take a stress test to find out how your stress levels measure up.

How can I manage stress?

While how well we cope with stress varies from person to person there are things you can do to try and manage stress better. It is important to learn how stress affects you individually and to have a range of strategies for reducing the pressure.  

To deal with stress effectively you should try and keep the right balance between demands and coping ability. Too much stress is harmful but equally too little can leave you feeling bored and frustrated.

Taking the next step

  • Read ‘The Stress Response’ by Christy Matta - this book is available in the library through our Bibliotherapy scheme along with a number of other books addressing stress and anxiety.
  • Become more resilient  building emotional resilience can help you cope better with life’s ups and downs.
  • Download ‘How to manage stress – a leaflet from Mind for anyone who wants to know how to deal with stress and how to learn to relax.
  • Talk to a counsellor – sometimes stress is a sign of underlying problems that you’re not facing. It may be a good idea to talk things through with a counsellor.
  • Try mindfulness – a proven approach to help with stress and anxiety, learn to pay attention to the present moment, using techniques like meditation and breathing.  
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