How to cope with exam anxiety

Students, and anyone partaking in further education for that matter, knows the feeling all too well: the dreaded fear of failure that starts to creep in when you’re taking tests and exams. In many cases, everything you’ve learned simply vanishes from your mind. These eight expert tips can help you keep calm in the face of acute exam anxiety.

Mavie editorial team21/07/2022

Exam anxiety

In order to stop the exam anxiety, we first need to develop an understanding of why we even experience jitters before taking tests in the first place. The answer is that negative experiences from the past often have a part to play. Perhaps you flunked an exam back at school and remember being laughed at, punished or even failed because of it. Another common reason for exam anxiety is the overwhelming sense of expectation (that you put on yourself) or self-sabotage.

What happens in our bodies when we experience exam anxiety?

In situations where the performance is being assessed, those who suffer from exam anxiety feel enormously threatened with the fear of failure. This stress causes the human body to release the hormone cortisol, which in turn prevents us from retrieving important information from our knowledge repository. In other words, the so-called “blackout” we experience is a purely physical process. Exam anxiety generally leads to physical side-effects such as sleep disorders, nervousness, exhaustion and gastrointestinal problems, and, in most people, also gives rise to symptoms of mental and emotional stress.

When does exam anxiety kick in?

Exam anxiety don’t just creep in during the test situation itself – they can also start to manifest during the preparatory period leading up to the exam, i.e. a few days before.

What helps combat exam anxiety?

Extensive preparation, lots of breaks

Learning based on understanding is the crucial factor for success and good for your own sense of security. It’s vital that you plan in advance and don’t try to cram everything in at the last minute before an important exam or leave it all until the end of the school holidays (if a re-sit is looming). Don’t do more than four hours per day – and don’t forget to take breaks!


Embrace the nerves

Exam anxiety can also be seen in a positive light: they’re the antithesis of overestimation or “laissez-faire” and motivate you to prepare as best as you can.


Visualise the outcome of the exam

Visualising passing the exam encourages you to maintain a positive outlook. If you really try hard to imagine that you know the answer to every question, you create positive images that motivate you and reduce your exam anxiety.


Simulate the test situation

If the test is taking place before a panel, step into a room where your family members are playing the role of the panel and can ask you the exam questions.


What is the worst case scenario?

You fail. You need to give it another try. Perhaps people will sneer at you. But let’s face it: when all is said and done, it’s not the end of the world, is it? By considering the “worst-case scenario”, you can bring the potential threat and significance of the exam to a normal level.


Create a counter-programme to learning

Sport and social outings can be a great way of balancing your studies. It’s important to create positive experiences – especially when children have to study during the holidays.

7 Stay positive!

It might sound corny, but try to think positively, because negative thoughts fuel nerves and anxiety!


Take a moment to calm your breathing

Regular use of relaxation techniques and breathing exercises have been proven to reduce exam anxiety.

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