Imagine that you've got a major test coming up. Maybe you're feeling a lot of pressure to ace it—whether from your parents, your teacher, or just yourself. The night before the test, you stay up studying until your eyes are bloodshot and you can't think straight.
The next morning you're running late—no time for breakfast—and you rush into class just as the tests are being handed out. You know you've memorized everything in the book, but when you read the first question, it might as well be written in another language. You start to panic. The more you panic, the less you can remember. Time's up, and you've left a bunch of questions blank. You walk away from the test with the sinking feeling that you did about as well as you would have if you hadn't studied at all. What happened? back to top
The stress/memory connection
You've probably noticed that when people are really stressed out, they tend to be more forgetful than usual—and not just during tests. Was there ever a time when you were about to leave for, say, a big vacation, and your mom couldn't find her car keys? Or maybe your dad had to make an important presentation at work, and he drove off without his briefcase. At the time, you may have thought that they were just acting scatterbrained, but there's more to it than that. When you are feeling stressed, your body goes through a series of changes. Your heart rate and breathing get faster. The blood flow to your muscles increases. The brain cells involved in memory don't get as much energy as they normally do. The fact is that when you're feeling stressed out, it really is
hard to think straight. back to top
How do we know that stress affects the brain?
The way that stress affects the brain has been measured in scientific studies. Brain scans of people who have been under high stress for long periods of time—such as war veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder
or adults who were sexually abused
as children—show that the part of their brains that controls memory and learning is smaller than normal.
But short-term stress appears to take its toll on the brain, too. Researchers have injected volunteers with stress hormones, then tested their ability to do tasks, like memorizing German words or recalling a paragraph after it was read aloud. Guess what? The stress hormones made people score lower on the memory tests. What suffered most was their ability to remember things they had already learned. That's exactly what happens when you walk into a test flooded with stress hormones: you "know" the answers, but your brain can't manage to call them up unless you calm down. back to top
But I always stress out before a test—how can I avoid it?
For one thing, don't cram! Studying at a fever pitch without a break—and knowing that this is your last chance to get it right—sets you up for a major bout with exhaustion and anxiety. Skimping on sleep the night before a test also stresses your system and can contribute to fuzzy thinking and careless mistakes. And most important, don't skip breakfast. Your supplies of glucose (blood sugar) are lowest in the morning, and your brain needs to refuel in order to work well.
When you know you have a test coming up, you can help keep your stress level under control. Here are some tips:
- Start studying early, a few days before the test.
- Divide your studying into small doses.
- Make sure you get enough sleep the night before the test.
- Eat a healthy breakfast the day of the test.
In addition, there are a number of simple relaxation techniques you can learn that can help you soothe the stress and keep a cool head when you need it most. back to top
Take a deep breath
When stress hits, your breathing speeds up and becomes shallow and uneven. By consciously breathing more slowly and deeply, you can calm your emotions, reduce stress, and help yourself think more clearly.
While studying for a big test, try taking a break to focus on your breathing. Make sure you're breathing from your belly, not your chest. An easy way to check this is to put your hand over your belly. When you breathe in, your hand should move outward. When you breathe out, your hand should move back in. Focus on keeping your breathing slow, deep, quiet, and regular. On the day of the test, try to get to class a little early. Practice five minutes of deep breathing just before the test begins.
For an even stronger breathing exercise, consider learning the relaxing breath
. This is an ancient technique that comes from yoga
. The more you practice this kind of breathing, the better it works. It's a handy technique to know when you need to stay calm before a test, or any time you're feeling pressure. back to top
If you feel anxious while studying for a test, one of the best things you can do is take a break and get some exercise. Try taking a bike ride, a brisk walk, a quick jog, or a couple of laps across a pool. Aerobic
exercise causes the brain to make chemicals that reduce stress. It also increases the supply of oxygen and blood flow to your brain. This keeps your brain working at top speed. When you return to the books after exercising, you're bound to feel refreshed and rejuvenated. You can also give your brain a jump-start on the morning of the test: Set your alarm a little early and treat yourself to a mini-workout. If you usually get a ride or take the bus, and it's possible to walk to school instead, go for it! It's a great way to clear your head and give your brain a boost. back to top
Experiment with sound effects
Surveys have shown that listening to music is one of the most popular ways people choose to unwind. No doubt you have some favorite tapes or CDs you reach for when you need to relax. For some people, listening to, say, classical music while
studying helps them to concentrate. Other people find they can concentrate more easily when it's quiet. Whatever your learning style, turn on music you enjoy during study breaks
(and even sing along at the top of your lungs if you feel like it!). You may find that it helps you feel calmer. Steer clear of the really rockin' tunes, though. Music that's jarring may be great for a party, but not so good for chilling out. You might also try relaxing with music while you're falling asleep. This can take your mind off your studies and ease you into dreamland. back to top
Pause for a yoga pose
If you already practice yoga, there's no better time to do some relaxing poses than before a big test. Child's Pose, Corpse Pose, and Downward Dog Pose are described here
on iEmily. They help you relax and help clear your head. One scientific study even showed that medical students in India who practiced yoga before an exam scored better than those who didn't. These students also felt more relaxed, less irritable, more confident, and better able to concentrate and pay attention. back to top
Try progressive relaxation
Sometimes it's hard to fall asleep the night before a test. You're so keyed up from studying and trying to hold everything you've learned inside your head. One way to quiet your mind and body and help you drift off to sleep is progressive relaxation. It's a technique in which you tighten and then relax various muscle groups in your body until your entire body is loose and relaxed, and your mind is calm. To learn how to do this easy and effective exercise, check out the iEmily article on progressive relaxation
. back to top