Managing Exam Anxiety

Expert Article by:

Ashum Gupta, PhD

Professor of Psychology

Delhi University

Around exam time, most of the students experience butterflies in the stomach, have sleepless nights, get highly irritable, short tempered, have poor appetite and have worrying thoughts This happens to almost all students and such feelings are normal.

Always remember, normal levels of anxiety can help us perform to the best of our ability, producing a rush of adrenaline that helps us to feel alert, aroused and focused. If we find our anxiety overwhelming, it can block thoughts; create a negative frame of mind, lead to panic and potentially poor exam performance.

Just think of a scenario. On the day of exam, when you enter the examination hall, you are nervous, tense, your heart is beating faster and your hands are cold. You start thinking that others around you know the material far better than you do. You start feeling that you have forgotten what you had studied last night. You start experiencing a mental block. Even though you try to relax, nothing seems to work. Such feelings of fear or anxiety occur in response to a perceived threat. Remember, anxiety is created by your expectations as to what is likely to happen. If you start feeling that you will not be able to pass, you have not studied enough, this will make you feel terribly upset.

Those who experience exam anxiety have a problem with procrastination. They keep avoiding studying and at the last minute try cramming which does not work. In addition to feeling unprepared, students with exam anxiety often worry what others will think of them if they do not perform well or fail. Good students have a tendency to put a lot of pressure on themselves to excel. They are very concerned about their self-image. As they have always been performing very well, if even once they get slightly lower grades than what they expected, they start suffering from self-doubt. They then put a lot of pressure on themselves to perform better but somehow they put off studying longer than what they should have, and thus a cycle of self-doubts and irrational beliefs results in high levels of examination anxiety during exam situations. Some students are perfectionists, anything less than an A grade is a failure. They are constantly stressed up.

Each person suffering from examination anxiety experiences a different set of symptoms with differing degrees of intensity. The symptoms could be physical such as:

  1. Headaches
  2. Nausea
  3. Diarrhoea
  4. Extreme body temperature changes
  5. Excessive sweating
  6. Shortness of breath
  7. Rapid heartbeat
  8. Dry mouth, etc.

There may also be emotional symptoms such as:

  1. Excessive feelings of fear, disappointment, and anger
  2. Depression
  3. Uncontrollable crying or laughing
  4. Feelings of helplessness.

One may also exhibit behavioral symptoms such as:

  1. Fidgeting
  2. Pacing
  3. Substance abuse
  4. Avoidance, etc.

Along with these, there could be a set of cognitive symptoms like:

  1. Racing thoughts
  2. ‘Going blank’
  3. Difficulty concentrating and organizing thoughts.

Due to high levels of anxiety one is not able to absorb, retain and recall information. Anxiety creates a kind of “noise” in the brain that blocks the ability to retrieve what was stored in memory and also greatly impairs the ability to comprehend.

The good news for students who experience exam anxiety is that it can be easily overcome if one is willing to learn and practice some of the important techniques:

  • The key to reducing exam anxiety is to work at a steady pace throughout the year. If you get into the habit of doing so, it will be the question of revision- seeing something again and refreshing your knowledge.
  • If you find that you don’t have the required self-control and you just do not get down to study despite wanting to do so, it is important to consult a counselor timely so that you have plenty of time in hand to find a solution.
  • In case you don’t understand the subject matter, don’t try to cram. Seek help from your teacher, tutor, friend or parent to clarify the concepts.
  • While studying, choose a quiet room without any distraction. Use study table and chair so that you are alert.
  • Organize your study materials so that you don’t waste time hunting for anything.
  • Make a time table and try to follow it daily.
  • Take breaks in between while studying. During breaks, you can listen to pleasant music, go for a walk, talk to a friend over the phone or do some household chores, depending on your interests.
  • Do exercise and yoga regularly. Learn some simple deep breathing exercises to relax. This should be done regularly so that when you are in a state of panic, you can easily feel relaxed by doing the practiced relaxation exercises.

When you start having negative thoughts during exam (“I can’t do anything”, “I have forgotten everything I learnt”), instruct yourself by mentally shouting “STOP”. Once you have literally stopped the negative thoughts, do simple deep breathing exercise that you have been practicing daily. Usually panic starts in the night before, or on the day of the exam. Keep doing simple breathing exercises to relax yourself immediately so that you can regain control and can focus on studies.

It is also very helpful to keep making coping statements such as, “if I get anxious, I will do some calm breathing”. Regularly practice making positive self-statements. For example, instead of saying, “I will fail”, say something like, “I know I can do the test. I will do my best”. Keep challenging your negative thoughts and think of the time when you had passed the exam getting good grades. Come up with a balanced thought based on facts, not feelings.

Don’t fall into the trap of predicting that things will turn out badly. Instead, think, “Well, what’s the worst that could happen? The worst could be that I will fail but this won’t be the end of the world. I shall try to find out what went wrong and seek help to improve my performance”. Yes, it is going to work for you. What you need to do is to learn to identify your self-defeating, pessimistic thoughts, develop confidence in yourself, continue to be optimistic and keep working hard.