Health and Wellbeing

Exam Stress (Mental Health Awareness Week)

Stress: are we coping?

Stress is something we all experience at some point, especially when we’re faced with challenges like exams and assessments.

Stress is the focus of Mental Health Awareness Week (14-20th May) this year, and as the week coincides with assessment period here at Sussex, we want to take a look at what stress is and how we might be able to tackle it to help improve our mental wellbeing.

What is stress?

Stress is not a mental health problem in itself. The stress response is actually natural a survival strategy designed to keep us safe by sensing danger and then going into ‘fight’ or ‘flight’ mode (it’s this physical response in our bodies that can lead to uncomfortable feelings such as a racing heart and ‘butterflies’ in the stomach).

We often think of stress as a very negative thing that’s really bad for us, but there are actually different types of stress, and it’s not always bad.

Can stress be helpful?

Experiencing stress during our lives is perfectly normal, especially during times like exam period, and the right amount of stress can actually motivate us to focus on our work and reach our goals.

Some of the benefits of ‘good’ stress can be to motivate us, help us to focus, help us to prioritise, and improve our productivity. For example, it’s often much easier to start writing an essay when the deadline is approaching fast!

When is stress unhelpful?

At other times stress can feel overwhelming and prevent us from being able to concentrate, or cause anxiety.

Signs of harmful ‘bad’ stress can include difficulty concentrating, memory problems, physical symptoms such as headaches, tiredness and insomnia. Ongoing stress can lead to more serious mental health problems like anxiety and depression.

What can we do to avoid ‘bad’ stress?

Ideally, we want to be aware of our stress levels and keep in touch with the way that we are feeling, so that we can avoid overloading ourselves and experiencing ‘bad’ stress.

There are a few questions we can ask ourselves in order to find ways to help keep our stress at ‘healthy’ levels:

  • What things can I do regularly to look after myself? e.g. making sure I sleep well
  • What type of things help me to relax? e.g. going for a walk or going along to the free Mindfulness sessions on campus
  • What strategies can I use to help me avoid ‘bad’ stress? e.g. planning my study schedule in advance

Doing a combination of these things can help us to maintain a good level of wellbeing even in un-stressful times and to release stress when it does start to build up. There’s a really good analogy called the ‘Stress Bucket’ which explains this brilliantly!

You can find more information and tips on things we can do to look after our mental wellbeing on the Student Wellbeing web pages. The NHS Moodzone website also has lots of useful information about stress and the Student Minds website has a great page on exam stress.

If everything is getting too much

If you are concerned about the wellbeing of yourself or a friend then it’s important to seek support. Although certain levels of stress can be normal and helpful, it’s important to seek support for prolonged or very extreme stress, especially if it’s having a negative effect on your life.

We all need support sometimes, no matter how well we try to look after ourselves. This is especially important if someone has an ongoing mental health difficulty.

To find out about university services, local and national sources of support please visit the Student Wellbeing web pages


The Student Wellbeing Team provide information, resources and initiatives that support you to have a happy, healthy time at Sussex. Find out more at