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Examining stress: an investigation of stress, mood and exercise in medical students

  • J. O’Flynn (a1), T. G. Dinan (a1) (a2) and J. R. Kelly (a1) (a2)

Stress is an event that threatens homoeostasis and thus causes physiological and behavioural responses to reinstate equilibrium. Excessive and/or chronic stress can be psychologically and physiologically detrimental. Examinations can represent a significant source of stress for students. The hypothalamic–pituitary–adrenal axis (HPA) is the core endocrine stress system. Investigations into the HPA response to examinations have yielded inconsistent results. The aim of this study is to further explore the relationship between examination stress, HPA axis activity, mood, sleep and exercise in students undergoing a naturalistic examination period stressor.


In total, 16 medical students participated. Students completed self-reported stress, anxiety, mood, sleep and physical activity questionnaires, and provided saliva samples during an examination-free period and an examination period 1 month later. The cortisol awakening response, representative of HPA activity, was determined from saliva samples by enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay.


Anxiety levels increased (p=0.04) and mood decreased (p=0.05) during the examination period. There was concomitant decease in physical activity levels (p=0.02). There was no significant increase in HPA activity during the examination period (p=0.29). Sleep quality did not significantly worsen (p=0.55) during the examination period.


Examination periods are associated with increased anxiety levels, lower mood and decreased physical activity. Future studies incorporating examination results and cognitive function may help to identify potential protective interventional strategies, while optimising performance.

Corresponding author
*Address for Correspondence: Dr J. R. Kelly, Lecturer in Clinical Psychiatry, Department of Psychiatry and Neurobehavioral Science, Rm 5.38, Biosciences Institute, University College Cork, College Road, Cork, Ireland. (Email:
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Irish Journal of Psychological Medicine
  • ISSN: 0790-9667
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