stressed student sitting at lecture desk

How to cope with exam anxiety

It’s only natural to feel anxious around exam time, but by being organised, keeping healthy and pacing yourself you’ll be able to manage your stress levels and keep positive.

Exam stress and anxiety, however uncomfortable or unpleasant at the time, is entirely normal. Understanding something of the science of stress also helps to put it in perspective. When experiencing a stressful situation, our bodies produce the classic fight or flight response and release hormones to help us survive the situation. But the body was never designed to be in a state of stress for long periods. So the challenge is working out how to control and channel these feelings into positive energy rather than let them overwhelm you.

Pace yourself

The majority of students place far too much pressure on themselves by setting unrealistically high expectations. There’s nothing wrong in wishing to excel but burnout can occur if an individual sets the bar so high that their goals are simply not achievable. Yes, your parents and family want you to do well but not at all costs, so it is important to keep a sense of perspective. It is also important to pace yourself throughout the exam period and make sure you don’t peak too early.

Feelings of stress heighten considerably when we feel a lack of control over a given situation and fear the worst possible outcome, which from a student’s perspective is failing the exam. Stuart Duff, head of development at business psychologists, Pearn Kandola, advises students to focus only on what is actually in their control.

“You can plan areas of study, practice questions, cover specific topics, turn up to lectures and so on,” he says. “But you can’t write the questions, nor cover every angle of every subject area, nor do everything that your mates might be doing. Just do what you can do. Worrying about anything else is pointless and will only increase your stress levels.”

Be organised

Clearly the better organised you are in your revision (see Surviving revision hell), the more in control you will feel. Effective time management is key to feeling more in control and if you know this is a weak area, allow extra time for revision and try to impose discipline on yourself. If you are on track with your revision plan and making strides with your studies, this will have a hugely beneficial psychological effect in itself. You also won’t feel guilty about taking breaks and doing other things outside of study, which are important to help maintain a healthy state of mind during this period.

Deep breathing, meditation and other relaxation techniques can all help to reduce stress levels in the run-up to the exam period. Positive visualisation is also a potentially powerful technique to eliminate fear factors and is frequently used by sports people. Clearly picture yourself totally in control and calmly sitting the test with a successful outcome.

Keep healthy

Adopting the correct mindset is essential but keep in mind that the reaction stress produces in the body is a chemically based one and that you can help to counterbalance it with certain behaviours and routines. It might be hard for a student to stomach, but there is a clear link between healthy living and lower stress levels.

When under pressure, it is easy to fall back on short term stimulants or relaxants such as caffeine, sugary drinks, smoking or alcohol but it is important to look after your body during this period such as eating and sleeping properly and doing exercise. The latter increases energy levels and produces endorphins, which are know to reduce stress levels. “Get into healthy routines,” says Duff, “such as regular aerobic exercise, eating regularly and yes, it’s boring but true, drinking as much water as you can. These all help you to maintain the ideal environment within and around your body.”

The night before

Preparing properly the night before the exam is also key. Work out what you are going to wear the evening before, pre-pack what you need in your bag and even lay out what you will have for breakfast. Be sure to get a good night’s sleep and set your alarm sufficiently early so that you don’t have to rush and can arrive for the exam with time to spare. Perform some deep-breathing exercises prior to entering the examination room and when you take your seat.

In the exam

Read the exam paper carefully and take time to understand the questions. Estimate how much time you need for each question. Avoid becoming stressed if you suddenly feel the questions are more difficult than expected. As long as you’ve done your revision, keep thinking it is within you to pass this exam. Panic and anxiety will do nothing for you now but the power of positive thinking will and the chances are that if you allow yourself to think clearly and stay focused on the task, you will be able to answer the questions. If you’re in need of an instant stress-buster try imaging what life will be like after the exam.

“Set yourself the bigger goal of really celebrating once they’re over - going away with friends, buying yourself that iPad, partying - and use this as something positive to focus on at those times of stress,” says Duff. “And if that fails, just remind yourself that you’re one of half a million students taking exams at the moment. If they can all do it, what the hell, so can you.”

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