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What is stress doing to your brain?

There's no getting away from it, exams are stressful! Especially in those last few weeks when your revision becomes more intense. The problem is that the acute stress you feel in the build up to exams can actually reduce your brain's ability to memorise information.


The research

Research from the University of California has found that short-term stress can lead to the disintegration of the memory pathways in the brain, making it difficult to make memories. When you feel stressed, your body goes into its fight or flight response and produces the stress hormone cortisol. What the study found is that when you feel acutely stressed, your body also produces the molecule corticotropin-releasing hormone (CRH), which disrupts the processes of collecting and storing memories.

Memories are made at synapses between cells. Synapses are found on the end of dendritic spines - root like structures from the cell body that pick up information from neighboring neurons and transmit this information to the cell. When we try to memorise something, electrical impulses carrying information travel across synapses, and as this happens, the synapse becomes stronger. Using this synapse multiple times (going over the same information more than once) strengthens it, and creates long-lasting memories.

When you feel stressed, the released CRH acts on our brain cells, deteriorating our dendrites, meaning that electrical impulses can no longer pass effectively from cell to cell, which limits our brain’s ability to create memories. The problem is that when exams are looming and you have to memorise a ton of information you feel stressed and this reduces your capacity to create memories. When you test yourself later on, you can't remember anything because your memory pathways are being destroyed, and that just makes you more stressed... and the vicious cycle repeats.


What do we do?

If being stressed has such an impact on our memory, then what can we do? We can’t just stop revising! What we need to do is tackle what is stressing us head on and not just push through it. Most people when faced with something stressful will complain about it, but actually do nothing about it. They will watch TV or go check out Facebook for a while but these things are only distractions. Instead we need to create a plan to reduce the stress we are feeling, so we can get back to the focused stress-free revision that leads to great marks.

One tip that we give students is to remember that stress is a neutral thing. What you perceive the situation to be (either good or bad) actually dictates how that stress will affect us. Let’s say you get a bad mark back in a mock English exam and that’s stressing you out. A negative response to this situation, maybe feeling like you just CANNOT write English essays, can lead to an extensive list of both mental and physical problems. This stress filters into different parts of your study as well, suddenly we feel out of control and our exams suffer.

Top students just flip the coin. Stress is used in lots of professions to help people focus and meet the challenges they are facing, especially in emergency situations when the pressure’s on. So that bad mark in English – why is it so bad? Okay, maybe you were hoping for higher but you still have time to go over what went wrong with teachers/friends and make sure the next time you write an essay it comes back with the marks you want.

William Arthur Ward is famous for saying “Adversity causes some men to break, others to break records”. Top students confront the stress they feel, using it to push them to revise this, or go over that, so that they can actually eliminate the stress they are feeling, rather than just hope it goes away.



Here are some tips to help reduce stress on a daily basis, so it doesn’t all build up come exams!

Start early

Get as many little bits of revision set-up (making notecards/mindmaps etc.) done during the term. Saves a mountain of work building up come exam time.


Face your stressors 

Make a bullet-point list of how to fix a problem you’re having.

Stressor: Bad mark in Algebra.

  1. Get your teacher to go over it with you.
  2. Give yourself a little test in it.
  3. You will get a good mark = Stress is relieved. OR, you repeat the process until you do. 


Take time for yourself

Do one thing you love every day. Things like exercise, team sports and socializing with friends can really help give your mind a break and keep you positive. However, make sure you put that in your daily plan otherwise just running away to the gym when you have loads of work to do will elevate your stress rather than reduce it.