Exam Stress & Procrastination

A client told me something very funny this week: “I’m glad I have so many stressful exams next week… it’s been the push I needed to get all my laundry folded and mop the floors!”.

Has this ever happened to you? When exams are suddenly only a few days away, we often get motivated for all the wrong reasons, remembering that project we left unfinished or some other menial tasks that could wait for another day. So why do we procrastinate? And what can you do to overcome it?

Procrastination often happens when we’re stressed. Most people find tests and exams a little bit stressful. In small doses, stress can be helpful. A small amount of stress or anxiety can be a strong motivator to engage in activities like studying or revising. If you felt absolutely no stress about an exam (due to a lack of caring about the result; or over-confidence) you’re much less likely to study for it, and therefore be more likely to get a bad result! Or, if you’re not even a little bit worried, you might feel very sleepy and apathetic – not the ideal space to be in when you need to memorise information.

Too much Stress

However, the opposite is also true. TOO much stress can completely overwhelm us and hijack the part of our brain responsible for planning, learning and organisation – the cerebral cortex. When we’re stressed out, our body goes into survival mode and switches off the bits necessary for our normal intelligent selves.

This relationship between stress and performance can be mapped out onto what psychologists call a ‘Yerkes-Dodson Bell Curve’:

Yerkes Bell Curve

Yerkes Bell Curve

What does this all mean?

You might be sitting there, thinking about all the study you need to get done, and all the lectures you need to catch up on, and how important your final grade is, and what exact percentage you need to pass the subject/unit – and feel very anxious.

Because we don’t often like feeling very anxious, we sometimes avoid whatever the thing is that is making us feel that way – for example, by avoiding studying to go and put a load of washing on. In the short term, it can feel very relieving to walk away from our textbooks to concentrate on something much more in our control. But in the long-term, it increases our anxiety as we haven’t done much to reduce the source of the stress.

So, what can you do?

  1. Recognise when you’re procrastinating and understand that while it feels good now, the anxiety is likely to catch up with you later. As much as possible, avoid avoiding.
  2. If you start to feel the symptoms of anxiety in your body (increased heart rate, tight muscles, faster breathing) engage in strategies that help us feel calm again: deep breathing, muscle relaxation, mindfulness, or meditation.
  3. Our brains like small tasks with frequent rewards. It’s much easier to complete a small task than a big one, and it feels much more in our control, and therefore less anxiety-provoking. Something like “watch four hours of lectures and read all three months’ worth of my notes” can feel like an impossible task likely to trigger anyone’s fear response. However, ‘watch 30 minutes of one lecture and then take a break’ feels much more achievable.
  4. Set a ‘contract’ with yourself to do as much as you can done in a set amount of time (e.g., 20 minutes). Once the 20 minutes is up, you can either match the same time, or halve it, and keep doing this process. Most people will find that after 20 minutes, they will build some momentum up and be happy to keep going. However, if you hit 20 minutes and don’t have it in you to keep going, take a short break and start the process again.
  5. Plan what you need to achieve ahead of time, so you aren’t cramming information the night before the exam. Cramming can make us feel anxious and is not a particularly effective way of storing information in our brains. Smaller chunks of study over a longer period are a much more efficient way of learning.
  6. Make sure you’re engaging in regular self-care, like sleeping well, eating a healthy and varied diet, and getting exercise in your day. Self-care helps ‘reset’ our stress levels and can make it easier to cope with anxiety-provoking situations.
  7. Reach out to other people for support. Having a study buddy or someone who can keep you accountable are two great ways of staying focussed on a task.

What to do now?

And finally, if it feels like your stress or anxiety is unmanageable, consider contacting a psychologist for professional support.

Speak to your psychologist today about Stress & Procrastination.

Written By Frieda Scholten-Laidler, Provisional Registered Psychologist

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