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Managing exam anxiety

Groups and workshops

Three students talking

Our groups and workshops are designed to support you through the demands of academic life. Our students often say they find it beneficial to be part of a group where other people are experiencing similar difficulties.

It is natural to feel nervous before an exam. A moderate amount of anxiety probably aids performance as it produces a rush of adrenaline which can help with focus and concentration. However, too much anxiety can have the opposite effect and lead to panic, inability to concentrate and potentially poor exam performance.

Exam nerves may seem much worse if you are doing exams for the first time or after a long gap. Equally, if English is not your first language or you have a specific learning disability or mental health problem, exams can seem particularly daunting. There may also be other things in your life that are causing you stress. We are all individuals with different stress levels, personalities and past experiences which can all contribute to our ability to cope with stress and pressure.

Top tips to beat exam anxiety

  • Be mindful. Allow your exams/revision in to your mind ONLY when planning your revision, or when actually revising. The rest of the time, absorb yourself 100% in whatever else you are doing - and don't forget relaxation time!
  • Anxiety is contagious! Keep tactfully away from others who may increase your exam anxiety.
  • Keep a record of how much time you spend planning for exams and how much time you spend just worrying about them. Revision is good, but don't let exams invade your headspace. The only result here is anxiety.

Your Student Services Hub runs mindfulness for exams workshops which can teach you practical strategies to manage your anxiety.

Guidance and advice

  • Before the exam

    Be prepared – minimise stress

    • Start revision early. Trying to grasp a whole year’s work in the final days or hours before an exam is likely to lead to more anxiety.
    • Plan a structured revision timetable. Set yourself achievable goals and include breaks and pleasurable activities.
    • Think about the kind of questions that will be asked and practise with past exam papers.
    • Seek help and advice from your department if there is anything you are not sure about, they may run pre-exam workshops.
    • Make sure you look after your general wellbeing:
      • eat regularly and well
      • take regular breaks and get some exercise
      • keep to a regular sleep routine, don’t study late and nap in the day.


    Change how you think about exams

    Although exams are important they are not usually life or death situations! There are usually opportunities to re-sit exams and you will hopefully have had other opportunities to show your knowledge and skills through coursework, lab reports, projects etc.

    If you can get away from thinking that exams are of the utmost importance and everything is doomed if you fail, this can take some of the pressure off and enable more effective performance.

    It is also important to be realistic. A distinction is nice, but if you set your targets too high you may never achieve it and feel very anxious and demoralised in the process.

    Learn some relaxation techniques

    Relaxation and stress management techniques can be learned and acquired with practice. Alternatively, most large bookshops and libraries sell books and tapes which can help teach relaxation techniques. Knowing how to relax can be invaluable in the lead-up to exams and during the exam itself.

  • The exam

    Be organised

    Make sure you know your exam timetable and where to go. Set off in good time! Have everything you need ready in advance, with any spares. Remember you need your registration card and exam entry form. Do have something to eat before the exam, however queasy you are feeling. It doesn't need to be a huge amount, but you will function better with fuel inside.

    Keeping calm

    Once in the exam, if you feel panic is rising and your mind going blank, take a minute to use a breathing technique and give yourself time to calm down and regain focus. Panicking will stop you reading carefully so it is important to keep yourself focused and positive. Read the whole paper once, then read it again and mark the questions you think you can answer. Then read those questions carefully – make sure you understand what is required – and select the ones you are going to answer.

    Answering the question

    The biggest mistake people make in exams is not to read the question carefully; so they don’t answer it in full. The second biggest is making sweeping statements without backing them up with evidence. Plan out your answer for each question as you go. If you find that thoughts or ideas about other questions come into your head, jot them down on a separate piece of paper – don’t spend time thinking about them now. If your concentration wanders or you begin to feel panic, try one of the focusing or other techniques below.

    Self help techniques to help focus

    Thought-stopping

    When we are anxious we can begin to have negative thoughts ('I can’t answer anything', 'I’m going to fail', 'I’m going to panic'). If this is happening, halt the spiralling thoughts by mentally shouting 'STOP' or picture a road 'STOP' sign or traffic lights on red. Once you have literally stopped the thoughts, you can continue planning, or practise a relaxation technique.

    Use a mantra

    Derived from meditation, a mantra is a word or phrase which you repeat to yourself. Saying something like 'calm' or 'relax' under your breath or in your head, over and over again, can help reduce anxiety.

    Focusing

    Looking out of the window; noticing the number of people with red hair; counting the number of desks in each row…all help to distract your attention from anxious thought and keep your mind busy. Mental 'games' such as making words out of another word or title, using alphabetical lists etc are all good forms of distraction.

    Bridging objects

    It can help to carry or wear something with positive associations with another person or place. Touching this 'bridging object' can be comforting in its own right, then allow yourself a few minutes to think about the person or situation which makes you feel good. This can have a really calming effect.

    Self-talk

    In exam anxiety or panic we often give ourselves negative messages, 'I can’t do this', 'I’m useless'. Try to consciously replace these negative thoughts with positive ones, 'this is just anxiety, it can't hurt me', 'relax, concentrate it's going to be OK', 'I’m getting there, nearly over.'

    Whichever of the distraction techniques has worked for you, finish by going through the refocusing exercise (it only takes 30 seconds or so but may have a profound effect on your ability to believe in yourself and the task in hand). Different techniques work for different people, so it's worth experimenting to find the ones that are right for you. Developing techniques for managing panic can take time so it pays to keep practising.

    After the exam

    After the exam is over, it's tempting to over analyse all the answers you gave and if they were good enough. This will only stress you further. Try to forget about the last exam, and focus on the next one, instead.

  • Dealing with panic attacks

    Read these steps carefully, and try to learn how to control feelings of panic.

    Normal and safe

    Panic or anxiety attacks are a normal bodily reaction intended to prepare the body for quick action. If they happen when no action is needed, they are uncomfortable and unpleasant but never dangerous. This will last only a short while at the end of which the body returns to its usual state.

    What is happening here and now

    If you tell yourself you are starting to panic, it is more likely that you will. Concentrate on what is happening inside you right now, not what might happen later on, eg. "My heart is beating fast", not "I’m starting to feel awful".

    How to stop it

    Either exercise or relaxation cuts anxiety so:

    • hold your breath and tense up even more for five seconds
    • breathe out, let your muscles go loose
    • breathe regularly. Slow your heart down with each breath

    Think positive

    It will help you to cope if, as you relax, you think logically about the situation. Say to yourself, "This situation may not be easy or pleasant but I can keep calm, deal with and see what happens."

    Assess your progress

    Afterwards, look back on what happened. Coping with your feelings, even if only for a few seconds, represents great progress. You should be pleased with your efforts.

  • Further help

    If you have tried the suggested techniques and still feel very anxious or stressed it is worth talking to someone about how you feel and seeking some extra help. Come and talk to an adviser at your Student Services Hub during opening hours.

    For out of hours support during term-time you can visit or call Nightline.

    You can also look at our online mental health programme, SilverCloud, which offers resources to help with anxiety.