Exam stress

Jo Baker

Jo Baker is a psychotherapist, clinical supervisor and educator specialising in student wellbeing and learning.

Fear and anxiety are part of our survival mechanisms. It is possible to overcome exam anxiety by taking some simple steps to lower your stress levels and improve your performance.

Anxiety is a common response for many people when facing exams with some reports estimating that 40% of students experience exam anxiety.

It is possible to overcome exam anxiety. By taking the simple steps below you can learn how to lower your stress levels and potentially improve your performance.

What are stress and anxiety

Fear and anxiety are part of our survival mechanisms. They have the job of keeping us safe and alerting us to possible threats. In your brain you have two almond-sized organs called the amygdalas. They are the security guards of the head office if you like. They can detect potential threats, physical, emotional, or social, in the environment immediately and act on them automatically.

This starts a process called the fight-flight-freeze response before the higher thinking areas of the brain knows anything about it. Adrenaline rushes through your body causing your heart rate to increase. Your breathing also becomes faster to help you fight, flee, or freeze and the reasoning part of your brain shuts off. It really is an excellent system for keeping you safe.

Why does this happen?

Joseph Le Doux, a neuroscientist, and leading researcher in this area, provides a really helpful explanation; imagine you were walking through a wood and saw something that could be a stick, or it could be a snake. If the thinking areas of the brain were given time to get involved, you may well already have been bitten so it is safer for the brain to respond as if it is a snake. However, if you perceive the exam as a threat, or rather the outcome of the exam, then this can cause high levels of anxiety. Experiencing anxiety when you're trying to recall information can inhibit remembering. Anxiety in turn will try to get you to imagine the worst possible scenario. So, it makes sense that you are more likely to perform well if you can lower your emotional arousal.

Anxiety is not the same as motivational nerves which almost everyone experiences. They can sometimes be confused, because they have similar symptoms - butterflies in the stomach, raised heart rate etc. But when you are motivated a different circuit is activated in your brain, which can speed up thought and help you enter flow. Motivational nerves can actually give you the energy you need to focus and to perform well in the exam.

What can help?

Preparing for the exam

  • Start by accepting the anxious feelings. They are telling you that you care about the exam and that you need to prepare for it.

  • Plan your time. Anxiety thrives on uncertainty so by drawing up a study timetable for the weeks leading up to the exam you can take back control. Remember to keep it balanced and factor in time to recharge physically and mentally.

  • Prioritise sleep. Whilst it may seem tempting to study late into the night there is plenty of evidence to show that this reduces academic performance. Sleep is vital for physical and mental stamina as well as for learning.

  • Don’t forget the basics. Eating a balanced diet, staying hydrated, moving your body regularly and getting out in sunlight will all help to keep anxiety in check. Even some simple movement, such as shaking your hands or going for a walk, can help dissipate anxious feelings and lower adrenaline..

  • Get the practicalities sorted. Make sure you have everything ready ahead of the exam such as pens and pencils, calculators, and water bottles if allowed. Make sure you know where you are going and what time you need to arrive.

  • See your friends. It is common for people to feel that they don’t have time to socialise when they have exams coming up but connection to others is one of our human needs. Obviously going out every night is likely to have a negative impact on your study but meeting up with friends and having fun can help you let off steam.

Your friends are likely to feel just as stressed as you, so spending time with them sharing will often make you feel better.

24 hours before the exam

  • Focus on getting yourself ready for the exam by keeping up those good habits. Decide what time you will go to bed and make a strategic plan for the day working backwards from then. Don’t forget to include time for relaxation, getting some fresh air, exercising and eating well.

  • Try to avoid last minute cramming as research indicates that trying to take in lots of information the night before your exam can disrupt your sleep and potentially confuse you. It is not the way your brain learns. Take some time to remind yourself of what you already know but make sure that you finish early and allow time to wind down and sleep well.

The day of the exam

  • Set an alarm and allow plenty of time to get ready so that you are not in a rush.

  • Eat breakfast, even if it is something small like a banana, and rehydrate. This will help give you the energy you need to maintain focus in the exam.

  • Spend some time outside. Getting out in the early daylight can help you to feel more alert and lower emotional arousal.

  • Listen to music. Music can alter your mood remarkably quickly. Choose something that makes you feel good and relaxes you.

  • Decide if you want to spend the time before the exam on your own or with friends. Do what will help you most.

  • Plan to get to the room in plenty of time.

  • Use a breathing technique such as 7/11 breathing to help you to stay calm.

During the exam

  • Remember that motivational nerves are normal and can help you to focus.

  • Use 7/11 breathing and let any nerves settle.

  • Read through the paper and start where you are most confident.

  • Plan out your time. Once you have made a start you will probably find that you are able to answer more questions than you first thought.

  • If you feel nervous or find yourself going blank, look ahead of you for a few moments and do some 7/11 breathing before you return your eyes to the paper.

  • Remember your answers don’t need to be perfect. Just complete them to the best of your ability.

After the exam

  • Congratulate yourself on what went well.

  • Decide if you want to spend some with friends or on your own.

  • Focus on what you’ve learned and can build on for next time.

  • Do something to reward yourself for your hard work.

Page last reviewed: February 2023