This is Your Body on Tests and Exams


By Dr. Fahad Basheer, guest to Natural Blaze

The Impact Of University Exams  On Your Body

University exams are the fundamental factor that decides whether you have the eligibility to sit in the next year or whether you are eligible for the post nominal degree. University exams are inevitable when it comes to your undergraduate or postgraduate life.

Depending on the status of the degree you undertake, you will have a bulk of topics and books to be covered and studied. For a higher degree like medical education you will indeed have a vast amount of topics to be covered for upcoming exams. It’s tough, weary and stress worthy! Indeed, no doubt about it, as everyone who passes through the typical stages of life normally experiences these stressors…

Some may even avoid their sleep and some may even avoid their food in order to save the time for studying and covering subjects. Due to various subjects, medical students find it difficult to memorize them and hold on to what they have previously learned. So the only thing that helps them pass their exams is the rehearsal of information that they start before the day of the tests – and luck, if the questions asked are from the topics they have learned for the exam.

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Because it is 100% impossible to cover all material from medical textbooks for the exam, this creates anxiety in not finishing the chapters that are yet to be studied. And it creates tension as the students tend to forget whatever they studied due to large amount of chapters they study within a short period of time.

And while studying any data it is inevitable to use one’s conscious mind for analyzing and rationalizing the subjects you learn. The overuse of one’s conscious mind will create stress patterns in the body, tensions and anxiety. Additionally, there are other social fears like fear of failure and fear of the aftereffects of failure – all of which contribute to Stress.

This is Your Body on Tests and Exams

adrenaline brain stress while taking tests

During stress, the adrenaline released shunts blood flow from forebrain (that is essential for you to use your intelligence) to the hind brain which regulates the reflex actions. This inhibits a person from focusing on the tasks at hand. In other words, the student won’t be able to focus on what he is studying.

According to the American School Board Journal June 2005, on “Test anxiety,” high anxiety can disrupt the student’s concentration and will result in low test scores. Studies have discovered that when you are emotionally upset, “you can’t just think straight.”

At the Heart Math institute, their research has found that, when we are stressed out, our heart patterns become disorganized and non-coherent -the non-coherent heart patterns produces non coherent patterns in the brain.

This decreases the brains ability to process information and in recognizing patterns and decreases the brains ability to solve problems and the brains ability to learn. This makes the student feel that what he tries to learn doesn’t make any sense. As a result the student may get stressed up or throw off the book.

Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that acts as a stimulant and sensitizes brain cells to look for patterns. Strong dopamine levels are reflected in individuals with sharper thinking and focused behavior. Stress can cause imbalance in the normal production of dopamine by either resulting in overproduction leading to anxious, hyper vigilant or perfectionist behavior — or by underproduction, leading to inattention and unmotivated behavior.

In a research study, it was discovered that neurons in the brain of a chronically stressed individual may have fewer and shorter dendrites. This deficiency impairs communication with other dendrites reducing the brain’s ability to process information effectively. Stress can severely affect our working memory and long term memory.

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The stress that you undergo during exams not only affects your learning process and memory but also badly affects your physical health.

I have been witness to many of my fellow classmates suffering from oral ulcers, fever, headache, skin ailments and constipation. In 2008, researchers led by imminent psychologist Simon Knowles of Swineburne University of Technology, Australia, found that the stool samples of students facing an examination had fewer lactobacilli than that found when they had during a relatively stress- free period e.g. during the start of a semester. This lactobacillus is essential for the production of 95% of the mood elevating hormone serotonin, nutrition of 70% of immune cells and for proper digestion. But the best part is that these are just temporary phenomena and get resolved immediately on completion of the examination.

It is also notable that the healing process of pre-existing wounds and diseases also slows down during this period. Yes, stress can even cause delay in healing by 25% or more. Research shows that dental students took 40% or longer to heal a small standardized wound made prior to exams compared to an identical wound made during their summer vacation. Cortisol released during stress inhibits immune cells that produce inflammatory cytokines that are essential for the early part of healing process.

In a research on impact of academic exams on medical students, it was discovered that the medical students who underwent academic examinations had down regulation of NK cell activity which is essential to destroy tumor cells. The levels of NK cells are considered indicative of immune strength. They play the role of first defense in controlling infection in the early stages of the same. Psychological stress reduces the Natural Killer cells and thereby paves the way for infection/disease.

A study involving medical students as its subject has revealed some startling facts. It was noted that stressed medical students tested on the day of their examination showed significantly lowered levels of immune markers including lowered levels of NK cells. It was also noted that lack of social bonding too had an adverse effect on these cell levels. Lonely medical students had lower levels of NK cell activity when compared to their more socially active counterparts. In the same study it was found that these medical students has lower synthesis of gamma interferon by peripheral blood leukocytes after stimulation with concanvalin A, altered expression of interleukin2 receptor and impaired cellular immune system control of the reactivation of certain latent herpes viruses. This clearly shows that the stress that we undergo during our exam is powerful enough to shut down our immune system.

A study conducted at Ohio State University threw up an interesting fact with the risk of being susceptible to hepatitis because of exam related stress. They injected the hepatitis vaccine on the 3rd day of a 3-day continuous academic exam on 3rd-year medical students. The results revealed that immune response of students who appeared for the final examination (they are the ones prone to higher level of stress) to hepatitis was less when compared to students who were not under stress of any kind. They discovered that seroconversion of hepatitis antibody from Hbs Ag to anti Hbs Ag which represented that shift from infectious hepatitis to inactive hepatitis or acquirement of immunity was decreased in medical students with anxiety during the academic exams. In other words the stressed medical students took more time for seroconversion or antibody production.

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Studies have revealed that written examination may or may not increase the cortisol levels, but oral examination (viva) spiked up the cortisol in the body. The instant stress experienced by the medical students was measured using salivary cortisol. In 2007, vaidya and mulaonkar as per their research pointed that the increased academic pressure during the first year as the one of the most responsible cause for increased anxiety and stress in medical examinations.

In sum, university exams and the curriculum creates a lot of pressure and stress that impacts our mental health, learning process, memory, immune system and body a lot. A crystalline clear action is needed either to create a new, stress-friendly curriculum that helps future students – Or, an inevitable need is required in developing the confidence in students through psychological motivation in classrooms and familiarity with the uprising curriculum set up in different universities.


This article (This is Your Body on Tests and Exams) was submitted to Natural Blaze and appears here with permission from the author.

Image: pixabay, NB


Dr. Fahad Basheer is an author, writer  and a trainer. He is a highly influential independent researcher of consciousness, mind body continuum system and its applications in medicine. He has specialized in NLP psycho therapeutics. He is the author of the book The Science of Emotions. He has published numerous articles to different magazines and Medical Journals. Follow Dr.Fahad Basheer on Facebook: & Twitter:

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