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Everybody feels stress. It is very normal to feel varying stress levels throughout the day, and most of the time we respond automatically to the stress cues our body and mind sends us.

Stress can be characterised as being both good and bad.

Good stress makes us alert and allows us to perform optimally, for example when working towards a deadline or playing sport.

Bad stress has the opposite effect, sapping energy and causing inertia. Bad stress arises when we work beyond our individual limit or ideal level. Typically this would be if we took on too many tasks, were working at something for which we lacked the pre-requisite skills or when we have simply become exhausted.

How Our Bodies React to Stress

The Yerkes Dodson Law details how performance is affected by stress and arousal; and the Flight or Flight response (familiar to Psychology students) explains why and how our bodies reacts to stress.

  • Yerkes Dodson Law

    Yerkes and Dodson found that performance increases with 'arousal' to an optimal level. Once this level is reached performance in fact reduces if arousal or stress is further increased. So in short, too much or too little stress is not good for us. An easy way to think of this is using a scale of 0-10. Nominally between 0 and 4 you are not sufficiently aroused, or 'stressed enough' to perform well; between 4 and 8 you reach optimal levels of stress and perform well; beyond 8 and up to 10 you are becoming too stressed and will be unable to perform effectively or well.

    (Robert M. Yerkes and John D Dodson 1908, The relation of strength of stimulus to rapidity of habit-formation. Journal of Comparative Neurology and Psychology, 18, 459-482)

    A diagram of the Yerkes and Dodson chart, showing that at a median stress level you can perform well, over that becomes too stressful and a low stress level will cause you to be less efficient.

  • The Fight Or Flight Response

    The 'fight or flight' response - to which we can also add freeze - is a primitive automatic reaction our body has to stressful situations. When faced with a situation or stressor, which requires a certain reaction our body and mind will take over to ensure we can react. A range of physiological things will happen internally to prepare us for the options of fight or flight or becoming 'frozen'. Some of the things you may notice are:

    • Increased heart rate
    • Sweating
    • Increased shallow breathing
    • Tensed muscles
    • The sensation of 'butterflies in the stomach or a nauseous feeling

    Whilst some of these reactions may seem strange, they are all normal. Sometimes it may be obvious why we would need our body to react in this way; for example if we see a car driving fast towards us, we would need to be able to react very quickly to get out of the way, and the physiological changes mentioned above help us to do this, and therefore make sense.

    Where it can become difficult to understand the 'fight-flight-freeze' response is when our mind and body start to become excessively reactive to things, which are not dangerous, exams, for example; logically we may know an exam won't actually harm us, and as already mentioned, a certain amount of stress can in fact be helpful to performance- but too much stress will make us respond, to avoid physiological and mental pain.

Stressless Exams

  • Preparation

    Plan your revision, and start revision as soon as possible. It has been shown that reviewing material soon after it is first presented and then maintaining this regularly, adding new concepts as you go, is the best way to shift information into your long term memory. To do this:

    • Have a daily timetable and stick to it.
    • Where, when and with whom do you study best? In the library, in the hub, at home? With your best friend, with your lab/class mate with a group, alone ?
    • Go over the material in a variety of ways and to do this repetitively. Be creative with how you study, for example flash cards, big sheets of paper, diagrams, rhymes, and lists.
    • Get plenty of sleep; sleep also consolidates memory and will help you feel alert.

    Remember exams are an opportunity to show what you know, not an inquisition to punish you!

  • Exam Day and the Week Leading up to Exams

    • Make sure you know all the practicalities - venue, times, travel times and how you will get there; it can help to plan this out or even practice the journey beforehand so you are clear and don't get additionally stressed on the day.
    • Nutrition and hydration; eat well and make sure you drink plenty of water. Avoid alcohol and caffeinated drinks.
    • Read any instructive material well ahead of time, including relevant exam polices around what you can and can't take into an exam.
    • Make sure you have checked the time of your exam more than once.
  • In The Exam

    • Read the exam paper carefully.
    • Underline key words and phrases.
    • Allocate time for each question.
    • Do the easiest question first.
    • Try to write something next to every question; even half a mark is better than no mark.
    • Don't worry too much about producing beautiful prose; make sure what you are writing can be understood and follows basic grammatical rules.

Top Tips

Take a look at our top tips to help you avoid and deal with stress.




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