Don’t Stress for that Test: New Study Finds that Higher Stress Equates to Lower Cognitive Function

Abigail Kendal (’22)

We’re all equally guilty. Our crime is universal among International Academy students and unlike other typical high school crimes, it doesn’t involve drugs or alcohol. This heist takes place at our cramped desk centered around our far-from-terse biology textbooks and dying lamp light. And now, we are all being indicted for our overly stressful mindsets.

Jinshil Hyun, a doctoral student studying human development at Pennsylvania State University, explains this phenomenon simply: we are all stressing in one large loop that invariably leads to lower cognitive function. In her quest to prove this piece of anecdotal evidence she assembled 240 adults from different socioeconomic and racial backgrounds to respond to questions from an app on their phones. This app asked them to rate their overall stress immediately when they woke up and continued to do check-in examinations throughout the day. In addition to these daily rounds of questions, this app quizzed the participants on a working memory task. Using a smartphone may seem informal and therefore yielding inaccurate scientific data, although using an everyday device may actually prove to do just the opposite. This allows researchers to see the cognitive processes in real, human, physical form.

This study proved to support her hypothesis, specifically, she found that even slight increases in a person’s stress levels can lead to a severe drop in cognitive function.  

What we can take from this study-

Knowing that waking up stressed leads to a less productive, “dumber” day, of course the question begs itself: how do we become more calm and serene come test day? This issue isn’t solved by a lack of studying, rather, a smarter method of interpreting the information.

Cramming clearly doesn’t do much, but getting behind on even just a couple hours of sleep can set you way behind the next morning. And even more so, our mindsets determine our days and overall academic success. Walking into a classroom sweating with crumpled notes, five people’s old homework sheets stuffed beneath your lunchbox, and a half-empty Red Bull probably isn’t conducive to scoring well on a test.

The words you choose when you internally speak to yourself matter. Using negatively-charged words including (but clearly not limited to): stress, anxiety, and failure will make you feel just those things like a stressed out failure who is anxious. Try changing your internal dialogue to include more neutral words. This doesn’t mean being cocky or overconfident, it simply means walking into a classroom and taking a test with your full head in it.

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