Exam stress - a look at the research

May 16th 2018

Exam stress - a look at the research

With just under a month to go, Alanna from the Jigsaw Research team takes a timely look at stress as students across Ireland prepare to face state examinations.

The ‘fight, flight or freeze’ stress response is a basic part of animal and human nature that has helped generations survive for millions of years. When faced with a threat or stressor like a dangerous animal, basic physical instincts take over and determine how we react. The body’s nervous system and hormones release adrenaline and cortisol. Heart rate increases, breathing intensifies, blood pressure rises. Nowadays the ‘fight’ might mean persevering in a difficult study or work task. ‘Flight’ might mean removing yourself from a difficult argument. ‘Freeze’, a little less helpful, is when we become rooted to the spot unable to react or remove ourselves.

As students across the country prepare to face the state examinations this June, some researchers argue that a little stress can be helpful, we can react quickly and safely to dangers or difficult situations. It can motivate us to meet deadlines and achieve our best. But when stress levels get too high they can be detrimental to physical and emotional wellbeing – to our heart and our head.

Research tells us that young people experience considerable amounts of stress, appearing as the third highest issue presenting to Jigsaw. Females tend to experience greater levels of stress than males. Evidence from the young people attending Jigsaw and findings from the My World Survey also demonstrates that stress increases with age. Stress increases from the 6th presenting issue for 12-14 year olds to 3rd for 21-25 year olds in Jigsaw. The graph below also shows the increase in reported stress levels from early adolescence to emerging adulthood in the My World Survey.

Stress findings from My World Survey (Dooley & Fitzgerald, 2012)

Types of stressors differ with age, with younger adolescents expressing concerns around school, family and friends. For older adolescents and emerging adults in their early twenties, stressors increase and include university and college, money, work and unemployment, family, relationships, and becoming independent. Emerging adults are at the bridge between adolescence and adulthood and face a host of challenges along their personal, social and professional paths. These ‘Millennials’ have already popped up in a previous blog in this series so not only have these young people been called the self-critical generation, they might be a stressed-out generation too.

As the My World Survey has shown, protective factors such as seeking social support from friends or family, higher levels of optimism, and planned and supportive coping mechanisms can counteract difficulties such as stress. These differ from person to person. Depending on the situation we might feel like we’re geared up for a meeting in the octagon with McGregor during a simple argument with a friend or family member, or we might be running in the opposite direction faster than Hussain Bolt as we face English Paper 2 or a college presentation. The key is to find what works for you in managing the fight, flight or freeze response.

If you are a young person who feels like they might benefit from speaking to someone about managing stress in your life, then please do get in touch with your local Jigsaw service. 


My World Survey (Dooley & Fitzgerald, 2012)

The science of stress responses http://www.simplypsychology.org/stress-biology.html

Australian Psychological Society’s Stress & Wellbeing survey (2011)


Guardian series on Millennials

Written by Alanna Donnelly
Research & Evaluation Officer, Jigsaw – The National Centre for Youth Mental Health