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Study and Sleep: Energise Your Mind & Memory this Exam Season

Study and Sleep: Energise Your Mind & Memory this Exam Season
16 May 2022 Samantha Anderson

TEMPUR® sleep specialist and sleep counsellor shares a guide to achieving your best results ahead of exam season.

As the summer term approaches, students now face exam season stress and anxiety. Whether it’s an essay, multiple choice questions or a presentation, long revision sessions inevitably lie ahead.

TEMPUR® sleep specialist and sleep counsellor, Thomas Høegh Reisenhus, shares his guide to achieving your best results whilst studying. “The key is to plan in advance and never underestimate the power of a consistent schedule.

“To allow yourself the best chance of not just surviving, but thriving this exam season, prioritise sleep as part of your study schedule. Not only is it a mood booster, but sleep also aids memory retention, which is essential for doing your best in the end of year assessments.”

Read on for Thomas’ guide to achieving the best results this exam season…

Start with sleep

Don’t underestimate how much brain power and energy you are using whilst sitting and studying all day. All physiological processes take energy and absorbing lots of information and storing it away is taxing on the brain and can be extremely tiring.

All healthy habits are built on a foundation of a good sleep schedule. Sleep not only reduces stress and boosts the body’s immune system, but it also determines what area of your brain is in control. When well-rested, control lies with the brain’s prefrontal cortex, which plays a central role in cognitive functions and influences areas such as attention and impulse inhibition – crucial for following a rigorous study schedule.

Fascinatingly, the prefrontal cortex has been linked to the hippocampus – the part of the brain responsible for our memory storage. Studies have shown that there is a bidirectional flow of information – so in laymen’s terms, the more supported and stronger the prefrontal cortex is, the better your memory will be.

So, whilst it may be tempting to pull an all-nighter and try to stuff your mind full of more facts, this is counterintuitive, as the brain simply won’t be able to retain the information if it is sleep deprived. By sleeping more and studying in a focused way, you will be sure to ace any test.

Make sure to schedule

A solid morning routine can help improve productivity by helping you better prioritise your time and anticipate what lies ahead; vital when balancing various study demands.

To set a positive tone for the day, start with a mood boosting activity first thing – checking your phone and getting sucked into social media isn’t the most productive way to start your day. Some light stretching, meditation, a morning walk, a mindful shower, or even just a quiet cup of tea before you crack on with your studying are all great ways to ease yourself into a day of revision.

A good way to track progress and see clearly what’s left to be done is to purchase a whiteboard and colourful markers. Prop it up in the corner of your room, map out a study calendar for the week ahead and keep a daily schedule of tasks. It can be incredibly satisfying ticking each item off once completed, which will put you in a great frame of mind for the next job on the list.

Prioritising a wind down routine will mean you can allow your brain to relax at the end of the day; vital if you are to keep up a sustained and quality revision schedule. Light stretching, a warm bath, a milky drink, journaling, or reading a beloved book are all effective bedtime routine activities because they all help us to unwind and achieve a state of relaxation at the end of a busy day.

Caution with caffeine consumption

It is well known that students rely on caffeine like the rest of the population relies on air. And whilst there’s nothing wrong with enjoying a morning cup of coffee or two, caffeine can overstimulate the brain and cause a detrimental effect on sleep.

Caffeine causes a burst of energy as it stimulates the central nervous system and boosts cognitive function by blocking adenosine receptors. Adenosine is a sleep-promoting chemical that is produced in the brain during our waking hours, slowly building up over the course of the day and making us feel drowsy. However, when caffeine blocks this process, we remain alert and more vigilant.

Come bedtime, caffeine can impact the onset of sleep, as well as reducing quantity and quality of sleep. It also reduces the time spent in Stage three non-REM sleep – the period of deep sleep that you need to feel refreshed in the morning.

So, rather than indulging in a cup of coffee or energy drink to help beat the afternoon slump, come midday it’s best to switch to decaf tea or coffee to ensure you aren’t left feeling wired come bedtime. Make sure you are staying hydrated throughout the day too. Aim to move around frequently and make sure to top up your water glass or bottle – a great reminder to get up and stretch.

Keep active

Enjoying small amounts of regular exercise is a sure-fire way to improve mood and cognitive function and can be a great way of setting yourself up for a smooth exam season.

We should aim for 150 minutes of moderate intensity activity a week, meaning 30 minutes of exercise every day, which can be broken up into more manageable 15-minute chunks to fit around revision. Walking, yoga, cycling, skipping, dancing and kicking a football around with some friends are all simple ways to increase your daily activity levels and make sure you are staying sociable between study sessions.

If you do enjoy more strenuous forms of exercise, it’s best to schedule them into your morning routine, as exercising in the hour or so before bed will leave you feeling more alert and doesn’t allow time for your core body temperature to cool, which may delay the onset of sleep and affect overall sleep quality.

And there is no rule that you have to sit still all day to learn well. Walking with notes is a good way to switch things up for longer revision sessions and standing desks relieve the pressure of sitting all day.

Manage stress

It is easy to feel overwhelmed so having techniques in place to manage stress and anxiety is a must.

If a topic is not sticking during a revision session, don’t be afraid to step away and come back to it later in the day, or even wait until the next morning. Sleep bolsters the memory and facts are stored in our long-term memory overnight, meaning you are more likely to be able to access them the next day when they previously evaded you.

Creative activities at the end of the day are ideal for grounding you and alleviating stress. Colouring books, paint by numbers and baking are wonderful ways to soothe the mind and lose yourself in the task at hand.

If the stress becomes overwhelming, it could be a good idea to try some breathwork. There are a few different techniques for this, so look up a video tutorial and try some out to see which suits you. The aim is to improve focus and promote relaxation – the 4-7-8 method for example has participants inhale for four seconds, hold the breath for seven and exhale for eight. This cycle regulates breathing, with the counting focusing you solely on the breathwork, stopping your mind from wandering.

Whatever you choose to do, having an activity to unwind with at the end of the day is vital for maintaining good mental and emotional health during exam season, so make sure not to skip it.

Nap time

Depending on your personal sleep pattern a midday nap may be optimal for your revision needs.

Early birds and night owls are real phenomena, with different people having different body clocks, affecting when they feel tired. If you’re an early riser you may begin to lag by lunchtime, so a short power nap can be ideal for rejuvenating you before the afternoon. Alternatively, those who like to burn the midnight oil should avoid late afternoon naps as it will make falling asleep at a consistent time much more difficult.

In general, the two golden rules for napping are: keep naps short – aim for 20 minutes at most, otherwise you’ll wake feeling groggy; and don’t nap after 3pm – napping too late in the day will interfere with your ability to enjoy quality sleep come bedtime

If sleep evades you, try Yoga Nidra (aka yogic sleep). Yoga Nidra is a state of consciousness between waking and sleeping, typically induced by guided meditation, and is a state in which the body is completely relaxed. Benefits include clearing the mind and releasing tension in both body and mind, both of which result in reduced stress and anxiety levels – crucial for exam season.

Sleep space

Having a calming space to unwind in after a long day of reading, researching and remembering facts and figures is important to ensure your mind can fully disconnect, relax and refresh ready for the following study stint.

Try studying in a separate space to where you sleep. If you have access to a library, they can be a great place to focus, and the journey or walk there and back allows you to detach from studying and recentre yourself in preparation for sleep.

Studying in another room at home is also a good option, but if you live in a busy house, no need to worry. Simply designate a specific area of your room for studying, marking it out with a colourful backsplash or a mural of sticky notes for quick fact finding. This will allow you to walk away from the space each evening and arrive there fresh in the morning.

For the rest of the room, a calming space is ideal for switching off at the end of the day. In order to fall asleep quickly and easily the room should be dark, quiet and cool – around 18°C is ideal. And after a full day of looking at notes and computer screens, even those with the best posture are likely to be in need of realignment. Your mattress and pillow should adapt to you, keeping your spine straight whilst absorbing pressure to provide relief in any painful areas of your body.

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