Lack of sleep during stressful exams has 'serious repercussions for pupils'

Irregular sleep patterns or long periods without quality sleep has the same affect as excessive alcohol, doctors said

Psychologists said sleep is crucial for teenagers to achieve their potential during exam time.Jeffrey E Biteng / The National
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‘Turn your exam papers over, you may begin’ – those words are enough to bring most of us out into a cold sweat as we remember dreaded exam time, and it’s no different for thousands preparing for exams across the UAE.

Psychologists said sleep is the single most neglected factor among many pupils studying for exams, and is crucial to help maintain a clear head and perform well.

Excessive revision and its effect on sleep patterns can have serious repercussions both mentally and physiologically, experts said.

According to the UK Sleep Council, in the month prior to exams, more than 80 per cent of teens said their sleep was affected by stress and pre-exam nerves.

The number of teenagers who managed just five or six hours of sleep a night also doubled to 20 per cent, with teenagers recommended to have between 8 and 10 hours of sleep a night.

“Sleeping in, napping, going to bed late or sometimes not at all – are all habits associated with pupils, but never more so than during the immensely stressful summer exam period,” said Tanya Dharamshi, leading counselling psychologist at The Priory Wellbeing Centre, Dubai.

“Alongside a healthy approach to diet, exercise, organisation and stress management, the amount of sleep pupilsachieve is paramount to their overall wellbeing and should form a key part of exam preparation.”

Sleep patterns in university students have been evaluated and related to exam performance by researchers at Georgia State University, Harvard University and the University of California Los Angeles.

Researchers found students who did not go to bed, or wake up, at consistent times every day were more likely to have lower grades.

While sleeping for at least eight hours every night might not suit everyone, maintaining consistent sleep patterns - going to bed and waking up at the same time every day - is crucial, even at weekends, experts said.

Psychologists in Dubai said they expect to see a spike in the number of stress-related patients during the exam period, as many young people are unaware of the link between mental health and sleep.

“Without proper levels of sleep, we get irritable, stressed and can end up feeling like an amnesiac,” said Ms Dharamshi.

“In extreme cases it can even lead to depression and panic disorder. Naturally, our coping skills suffer as a direct result.

“We withdraw from social interaction, develop feelings of loneliness and our tendency to worry increases, which further affects sleep, so a negative mental health cycle is borne which can be extremely difficult to break.

“Being awake for more than 16 hours continuously, our mental capacity is as impaired as someone who is drunk.

“I cannot stress enough how vital sleep is in order for the body and brain to repair itself on a daily basis.”

Cramming in revision overnight prevents the essential process that take place during our deepest part of sleep, known as Rapid Eye Movement.

During this time that our brain processes learned information, storing it in our long-term memory.

Without this, we become forgetful, our performance slows down and our mental alertness deteriorates severely.


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A recent study published by the National Bureau of Economic Research in the United States also showed hot weather can reduce learning and lead to lower test scores on exam day.

The "Heat and Learning" study linked test scores from 10 million American students to daily weather data, with results showing an average temperature increase of just 0.55°C over a year resulted in a 1 per cent decrease in learning.

Former Dubai teacher Linda Bonnar, who is now a future leader’s coach, said pressure to achieve a university place pushes some students to the limits of their mental abilities.

“Pressure has increased as some young people are told how important getting that place in university is, while others place increasing amounts of pressure on themselves to get the grades they need,” she said.

“Stress is a normal physical response to events that make you feel threatened or that upset your balance in some way.

“When working properly, stress helps us stay focused, energetic, and alert, like when we’re working to meet an important deadline.

“It’s when your stress levels affect your daily life negatively that something needs to change.”