Why did you blank in that exam?

Why did you blank in that exam?

That’s not an accusation. We’re here to help. Here’s what happened.

You got stressed

When you encounter stress, adrenaline is released into your body which instigates a fight-or-flight response. Your heart rate, blood pressure and breathing increase, and blood is sent to your limbs to help you escape or attack. Inessential functions like digestion and thinking about Charles Dickens are turned off.

It’s the same process that makes people freeze on stage. A sudden overload of stress hormones cuts off the brain’s access to memory.

You’ve been stressed for a long time

The physiological effects of chronic stress can negatively affect memory and learning. One study used rats to show the effects of chronic stress on memory by exposing them to a cat for five weeks. These rats couldn’t learn to adapt to new situations and environments, and had impaired memory when figuring out a maze they’d previously completed.

You’re not looking after yourself

Stress hormones all affect memory, but cortisol affects memory the worst. The amount of cortisol in your body is driven by the amount of stress you are experiencing, caffeine consumption, eating patterns, and how much physical activity and sleep you get. Excess cortisol impairs the ability of the hippocampus to both create and recall memories. The hippocampus is a part in the very centre of your brain which controls memory, emotion, breathing – all the good stuff.

If we’re winning at life, our cortisol should be highest first thing when we wake up in the morning, which gives us the energy boost to get out of bed. This high cortisol is why brain don’t work good for a while after we wake up. If our cortisol is high too much of the time because of stress, brain won’t work good lots.

You’re a perfectionist

A bit of stress is useful. But putting too much pressure on yourself to succeed undoes all that hard work – it impairs your brain from creating memories of new information and accessing stuff you’ve learnt. Instead of staying up all night alternating between cramming and counting your failures, you might perform better in the next exam if you throw your books across the room and go to bed.

If stress and anxiety are a problem for you, read this article on finding a therapist to help.


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