How to beat exam stress

Things the prospectus doesn’t tell you #17: Revision and exams

John Wilford, Sport Exercise & Health


Arrrggghhh.  Are your days broken down into 30-minute, colour-coded blocks of revision? Getting up early to claim a library desk? Staring at notes and screens until your eyes throb?  Before you know it the day ends, you’re hungry, dehydrated and your head hurts.  Welcome to the Summer term! 

 Stop. Breathe. Relax. You’re a finely-tuned, exam-passing machine. An athlete of academia. For any athlete, quality of training is more important than quantity; rest, recovery and refuelling must be programmed into their day. 

 Now look at that revision planner.  Which coloured blocks are for eating, sleeping, relaxing and exercising?  Don’t run on empty. You need to be relaxing, refuelling and refreshing yourself to survive and do well. 



  • Relaxation techniques: Practise tensing and relaxing each muscle group in turn starting with your toes and working your way up the body.
  • Breathing: Practise breathing deeply, evenly and slowly.
  • Sleep: If tired it’s hard to concentrate and maintain perspective. If you’re finding it difficult to drop off, cut down on stimulants (e.g. caffeine and alcohol) and allow time to unwind before bed. The key to feeling refreshed is having a regular pattern. Getting regular exercise helps (but not immediately before bed).
  • Massage and exercise (pilates, yoga, tai chi separately or combined in ‘Body Balance’ classes) are available from Sport, Exercise & Health
  • Therapeutic relaxation groups are organised by Student Counselling



What we eat and drink influences not only physical performance but mental performance too. If you want to boost concentration, memory and mood in the run up to exams try some of these:

  • “5 a day” of fruit and veg
  • Oily fish every week
  • Cut down “bad“ fats. Don’t rely on fast food!
  • Good breakfast to start the day
  • Eat regularly and have healthy snacks (raw carrots, celery, chopped nuts, raisins, dates, etc.)
  • Drink plenty of fluids (recent research suggests drinking water during exams can help improve grades – so don’t forget your water bottle!) though limit caffeinated and sugary drinks, especially before bed
  • Go steady with alcohol – bad for performance and sleep quality



Some anxiety can help motivate, but high levels of stress cause excess adrenaline resulting in headaches, racing heart, fatigue, irritability and sleep problems.  Physical activity uses this adrenaline, reducing these symptoms. It also releases endorphins, improving your mood.  Including some exercise in your day will boost energy and clear your head. It doesn’t have to be a two-hour gym session or a five-mile run. A brisk walk is great exercise and doesn’t need specialist kit or planning.  Even small bouts of activity can reduce tension and boost productivity.

 An organised class or activity could help.  Schedule them to fit your timetable.  It will give a welcome break from academic thoughts – and you’ll mix with different people.

 University gym staff note that many regular exercisers stop during this time of year.  Apart from one notable group – medical students.  What do they know that others don’t…..?


So, Wilf’s theory of revision optimisation (with apologies to mathematicians everywhere)…


Relaxing x Refuelling x Refreshing = Revising3



Further information: