Exam anxiety

It's normal to feel tense and worried before exams, and there are effective strategies which can help you manage your anxiety.

What is exam anxiety?

Almost everyone will feel nervous or experience some level of anxiety when faced with an exam, assessment, or performance situation. This is a common and natural response for many students in the preparation before, and during exams.

In fact, a moderate level of anxiety or stress is crucial to performing well – this helps us to be psychologically and physically alert in an exam or assessment situation.

The challenge is when our level of anxiety increases past an optimal level such that it interferes with our studying or performance. When anxiety is too intense, we may have difficulty learning and remembering what we need to know for the exam, find it hard to focus on questions, or demonstrate our knowledge or skills during the exam.

Even if you identify high levels of exam anxiety in yourself, the good news is that it’s possible to learn effective ways to manage this so that it doesn’t take over or get in the way of your performance.

What causes exam anxiety?

The skills you will find most helpful in managing exam anxiety will depend on what factors may be contributing to this. Exam anxiety may be related to:

  • Negative past experiences of exams
  • Lack of adequate preparation, or knowledge of exam-taking techniques or study methods
  • Unhelpful thinking about the exam situation (e.g., “I’m going to lose control!”), yourself (e.g., “I can’t do this.”), and/or outcome (e.g., “I’m going to fail.”)
  • Excessive pressure to achieve and/or perfectionism
  • Strong fear of failure
  • Poor self-care, including insufficient sleep, unhealthy eating, lack of exercise or relaxation.

Taking some time to understand and identify what is contributing to your particular experience of anxiety can help you develop an effective plan to tackle it.

Top tips to manage exam anxiety

Prepare as best you can

This means studying for the exam early enough, and using effective study techniques that help you learn, understand, and remember information. Being well-prepared goes a long way to help you feel confident about your study material, which can ultimately keep stress in check.

Take care of your body for a healthy mind

When we’re busy, eating well, getting regular sleep, and exercise can be easily neglected. Yet, these are essential for being at our best physically, mentally, and emotionally. Sleep, for example, is important for concentration and memory.

When planning your study schedule, prioritise fundamental self-care – this means allocating time first for things like healthy meals, ample sleep, consistent exercise, and social, enjoyable or relaxing activities. You can then plan study tasks around these.

Learn to manage the physical symptoms of anxiety

It’s important to know that the physical symptoms we experience in anxiety are unpleasant but not dangerous. You can learn and practise relaxation techniques like belly breathing or progressive muscle relaxation to calm your body or relieve tension.

It’s a good idea to regularly practise these when you’re not feeling too overwhelmed to begin with so that the strategies can feel more natural and easier to apply during more intense times (like when you’re sitting in an exam hall).

Make stress work for you by reframing your thoughts

How you interpret exam anxiety can affect your academic performance. Moderate amounts of stress energise and motivate us, help us focus, and stay alert. When we view stress as helpful to study, by giving us the strength and energy to overcome challenges, this can decrease emotional exhaustion during exam-time, and improve our performance.

Be your own motivational coach

Getting caught up in negative or self-critical thoughts can leave us feeling more overwhelmed and undermine us from taking positive action. Remind yourself that exam anxiety is a common experience and that it’s possible to cope. Affirm yourself by focusing on the study you have accomplished, and helpful steps you’ve taken in the past to complete exams before.

Connect with supportive people

Some people find studying together with other students who are in a similar situation both comforting and motivating. It’s also ok to take a break from others if other people are stressing you out. Reaching out to other helpful friends or family to talk about how you feel or things outside of study can also be important.

To learn more about how to keep stress in check at exam time, The University of Melbourne Peer Health Advocates and Bupa have also put together their top tips for managing exam stress.

What can I do next?

  • Pick up more tips about understanding and coping with stress.
  • Check out the great resources on Reach Out on coping with exam stress and how to study smarter at exam time.
  • Work through thedesk 's self-help program for tertiary students. There are four modules that aim to help students develop skills to stay calm, be more productive, and improve their wellbeing and relationships.

If you'd like more support, come along to one of our workshops or make an appointment for individual counselling.

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