How stress affects your learning

Stress has many effects on learning. Stressful situations make it more difficult to recall information. During exams or test we may find it harder to remember key pieces of information.

Stress impacts how we sleep, and our general levels of exhaustion. When we are sleepy our alertness and concentration is lowered and makes it difficult to pay attention, all essential for learning.

Stress also encourages us to prepare for danger, we want to respond instinctively rather than thoughtfully. This response means that we end up paying more attention to our environment, rather than absorbing academic information.

What you can do

Pause in the moment

In the middle of a stressful episode, take a moment to pause. A short pause can create a buffer and weaken the impulse to fall into a stress response. Try counting to 10, breathing deeply or taking a short break. If you need a longer break, do something relaxing – take a hot bath, watch a film or do some exercise. This produces chemicals in your body called endorphins, which make you feel good.

Notice it and name it

Simply name your emotional reaction. You might say to yourself, “I’m feeling really overwhelmed at the moment.” By noticing and labelling your reactions you help activate the thinking part of your brain, helping you to step back and decide what action to take.


To prevent stress from overwhelming us, we need to work out what problems we can tackle and what we need to accept.


Write a to-do-list, organise your diary, draw up an action plan and clean up the clutter on your desk. Organising is a powerful antidote to feeling overwhelmed and provides a calming effect. Consider making a list of all the things in your life that are making you feel stressed by writing them down on a piece of paper. This can help you sort things out in your head. Problems look more manageable written down than in a big jumble in your head!


Take a moment to step back and visualise the bigger picture. Imagine yourself handling the challenge successfully and create an image in your mind that inspires calm.


Our brains crave focus but we often work against this by trying to multitask. Break your tasks into chunks and try to focus on one part at a time.

Reach Out

Connect with others to share the load and get help with the challenges you’re facing.


Try these options to manage stress

Online support

  • Use Reach Out resources to find out what it looks like when your stress is getting out of control and how to manage it when it becomes a problem.

  • The Desk has a good time management module to help you plan your study.

Apps that help

To learn techniques to help you sleep better, focus more and get some relief from a busy mind, try Headspace or Smiling Mind.