Exam Anxiety

Exam Anxiety

It may be that you know from past experience that exams are something you have always dreaded, and felt anxious about.  Or perhaps you are feeling anxious about exams for the first time, or more worried than you can remember being about them before.  You may begin to worry about them at the very start of the semester, or a month, week or days before they start. 

Not many people can face exams without feeling some stress, and, to a certain extent, stress can help you to get things done.  But when it reaches a certain level, which varies from one person to another, stress becomes unhelpful

Typical Reactions to Exam Stress.

There are various signs of stress which people experience when their level of anxiety has become too high.

Physical Symptoms:
Sleep may be disturbed, short and interrupted, or you may find you want to sleep for ever.
You may lose your appetite, or want more food, especially alcohol, caffeine, or chocolate.
You may feel panicky, possibly waking up feeling anxious and breathless; you may feel nauseous and notice general muscular tension, perhaps focusing in neck-ache, headache or tightness in the jaw.
Thought Patterns
You may be preoccupied with exams even though they are ages away. Some of your thoughts may be very self critical, such as
running yourself down and comparing yourself unfavourably with other students.
You may see the future as bleak with you as a loser - not getting your degree or being inferior to others.
Some people worry about forgetting everything or ‘blanking out’.

You may find yourself tending to try and block out the subject of exams – avoiding going near exam halls, leaving lectures or switching off when the subject is mentioned.
You may be too easily distracted with very short spans of concentration and your normal functioning at study tasks may be badly affected.

These usually take the form of unpleasant scenes or flashbacks from previous exams.  They can be very vivid.  You may have nightmares, or thought about the future which are quite bleak.

Effect on Interaction With Others
You may find yourself withdrawing, unable to talk to friends as much as usual. You might feel frightened of what people say about exams. People may seem less reassuring than usual.

Your mood is may be just slightly down or quite anxious, often swinging between the two. You may have feelings of terror, or even despair.
Unpleasant though these symptoms are, they are very common and they can be overcome.

How to Deal with Exam Anxiety

1. Stop avoiding the issues. 

  • Try to face up to what lies ahead and plan for the event.
  • Review your revision and exam skills,  and plan to deal with any deficiencies.
  •  Set up a timetable to manage revision more effectively. Be realistic when planning your time; don't be too ambitious about what you can cover in an hour or two.
  • Schedule relaxation time in between study sessions (but avoid over-partying!).           
  • Create an area where you can study effectively ie. good lighting, comfortable chair etc. The area should be free from clutter that might cause a distraction.

2. Learn to handle anxiety more effectively.

  • You will keep your stress at a lower level if you have a routine that allows for regular meals and a regular sleep pattern.
  • Develop a successful ‘winding down' routine before going to bed.  Put your books away, make a list of anything you want to remember for tomorrow, and relax quietly. 
  • If you begin to feel panicky, concentrate on breathing slowly and deeply: put your hand on your diaphragm and breathe so that you feel it expanding and contracting slowly.
  • Picture yourself positively; maybe struggling with aspects of an exam - but doing so competently and successfully.
  • Imagine how good it will be when the exams are over, and what a sense of achievement you will have when you’ve done them.

3. Strengthen exam skills.

  • To help reduce anxiety, practice answering questions under timed exam conditions on your own.
  • Don't be frightened to ask for support from your department, perhaps with examples of the sort of questions you could expect in the exam. 
  • Sometimes we need someone else's help to get us to face up to a problem, and new skills develop more easily when you have a chance to talk it out with friends or family.
  • The Equal Opportunities Centre runs courses on a range of study skills, which includes coping with exams.
  • It might help to talk through your worries with someone other than friends or family.  If you would like to talk to a counsellor: