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The Stress of Studying: What Psychology Professionals Think You Should Know

Psychology research reveals what happens to our brains when we’re stressed about a test.

Taking a major test can cause major stress. It’s why, even years after graduating school, we can have nightmares about taking tests we’re unprepared for. But what’s really going on in our brains when a test is approaching? And can we do anything to reduce the stress we feel? Psychology researchers have some answers.

What Exam Stress Does to Our Brains

Most of us know stress can cause an upset stomach or a literal pain in the neck, but physiological changes can happen inside our brains, too. Psychologists at Cornell University proved this when they used an MRI to examine the brains of two dozen medical students facing a high-stakes exam.* The researchers asked the students to take basic, cognitive tests while being scanned. Then they compared the students’ results and scans to those of a control group.

The Stress of Studying: What Psychology Professionals Think You Should Know

The medical students did notably poorer on the cognitive tests than did the control group. And the MRI scans revealed why. The students’ stress was dampening the operation of the prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain that handles working-memory. When our working-memory is compromised, we have a hard time working on/focusing on relevant information. For the students, that meant they responded sluggishly to the cognitive tests and were easily distracted throughout.

Needless to say, when you’re taking a test, you don’t want your brain to be moving slowly. And yet, that’s exactly what exam stress can do to us.

The Best Ways to Handle Exam Stress

In many ways, exam stress is no different than any other kind of stress. Which means all stress-relief practices are relevant to anyone looking to lower their exam stress. However, there are also steps you can take that are specific to exams. These include:

Be Organized
Long before a test, you need to be keeping good notes and filing those notes where you can easily find them. You can avoid a lot of stress if you’re not running around trying to find study materials.

Have a Plan
Leaving studying to the last minute can stress you out. When a test is approaching, put together a plan for when, what, and where you’ll study.

Nothing prepares you for a test like practicing a test. If you have a practice test available, take it. If you don’t, use flashcards or a similar method to approximate the pace and intensity of a real test. Doing so can make you feel more prepared and thus less stressed.

As for general stress-relieving practices, the American Psychological Association suggests doing these five things:

Take Breaks
You may think that stepping away from important work will only make things harder. But a break—even for just 20 minutes—can help you feel less overwhelmed. This, in turn, can help you be less susceptible to the negative consequences of stress.

Research has shown that physical activity can be a great stress reliever. To reduce stress, take a walk, go for a swim, lift weights, or engage in any other activity that gets your heartrate up.

When stressed, we often hold that tension in our face. Releasing that tension in a smile or laugh can actually help us relax.

Get Support
We’re social creatures. As such, connecting with a friend or loved one can lift our spirits—particularly when a friend or loved one can offer emotional support while we’re stressed.

Taking time to meditate can help us release negative emotions. It can also help us find new perspectives, which can help us move past stress.

How a Doctoral Degree in Psychology Can Help You Learn More

If you’re considering starting or advancing a psychology career focused on understanding people’s behaviors and helping them, you should consider earning a PhD in Psychology with a specialization in Educational Psychology. This advanced psychology degree can give you the skills you need to conduct psychology research into the ways we learn.

If you’re concerned about finding time to complete a PhD in Psychology program—or don’t live close to any colleges for psychology—you could benefit from online learning. When you enroll in an online PhD in psychology program, you don’t have to drive to a school of psychology every day. Or any day. Instead, you can earn your PhD in Psychology right from home. Plus, online education allows you to attend classes at whatever time of day or week works best for your schedule, giving you the flexibility to work full time and handle other responsibilities while earning your doctorate in psychology.

Walden University offers its PhD in Psychology in a traditional online format as well as a Fast-Track Option. The Fast-Track option is ideal for students who wish to complete their doctorate in less time. To take advantage of this option, students take additional courses and begin their dissertation early to expedite their path through the program. The Fast-Track option is currently available for all PhD in Psychology specializations, including Educational Psychology.

Starting a career in psychology that’s focused on studying and alleviating stress can start with a PhD in Psychology. And an online university can make earning that degree possible.

Walden University is an accredited institution offering PhD in Psychology with a specialization in Educational Psychology degree program online. Expand your career options and earn your degree in a convenient, flexible format that fits your busy life.

*S. Beilock, Stressing About a High-Stakes Exam Carries Consequences Beyond the Test, Psychology Today, on the internet at

†American Psychological Association, Five Tips to Help Manage Stress, on the internet at

Walden University is accredited by The Higher Learning Commission,