Overcoming Exam Anxiety

Exam Stress pencil


A certain amount of exam anxiety keeps us energized, motivated, alert & focused.

Too much anxiety can interfere with exam performance. 

There are a number of things you can do to help reduce exam anxiety and turn those uncomfortable & unhelpful thoughts, feelings and behaviours around!

Don’t indulge in the feelings of stress! This might sound impossible or just ridiculous. Every time you find yourself worrying about your exams, choose to think about something else instead.  You might choose to think about something like your favourite hobby/song/colour. Or reverse the stressful thought so “I’ll fail my exams” becomes “I’ll pass my exams”
Stress can make us overestimate the threat of something bad happening i.e. mess up on exams.
Stress can make us underestimate our ability to cope. i.e. do well in exams. “I have been to class, I have done homework, & revised – I am in a pretty good position for the exams!”

Anxiety is probably the most basic of all the emotions.  It is experienced by all living creatures. 

Think of anxiety as a circle in 3 parts:

Anxiety circle


Your worrying thoughts, which affect your physical feelings (uneasiness, tiredness etc.) and as a result affects your actions; For example, you avoid or put off studying (or whatever is making you anxious).


Change those thoughts. Try to think of something positive, for instance things that you are good at, your favourite colour, food, music. You will immediately see how your physical feelings improve. Then your action should be something positive, it may sound boring, but get your books out and do a little bit of studying, or just plan your studies, get some nice stationery, fresh paper, a new start.




When you are feeling anxious wherever you may be, it is probable that you are not breathing regularly, either too fast or shallow.

Here is an exercise for you to try:

• Sit with your feet firmly on the ground and your back supported as best you can.
• Work out a stable breathing rhythm that works for you.
• For example:
o IN 1-2-3, HOLD 1-2, OUT 1-2-3-4-5 (Try to make sure your “OUT” breathe is longer than your “IN” breathe)
o Repeat this action for a few minutes focussing on your breathing.  Once you have practised this a few times it will become easier and more natural. You will be able to adapt this whenever you feel those anxious feelings coming on.

Here is another image which may help you when you are feeling anxious. It can really help if you get panicky.

• The Green light is when you are feeling fine & all is chugging along nicely.
• The Amber light is your warning light when you may begin to feel a little anxious. This is a reminder to step aside & breathe as above & to take your mind away from the bad thoughts.  That will help you avoid getting to the Red light which is where you may get that uncomfortable panicky feeling.




During the days when you are studying for your exams it’s a good idea to take regular breaks. Move away from your study area, try to get fresh air and perhaps take a walk.  While you are away from your papers, try to recall what you have recently learnt, you may pleasantly surprise yourself with how much you know!



This technique takes around 20mins.  It stretches different muscles in turn and then relaxes them, to release tension from the body and relax your mind.
Find a warm, quiet place with no distractions. Get completely comfortable, either sitting or lying down. Close your eyes & begin by focussing on your breathing as described above.
You may want to play some soothing music to help relaxation.
For each exercise, hold the stretch for a few seconds, then relax.  Repeat it a couple of times. It’s useful to keep to the same order as you work through the muscle groups:
Face : Push the eyebrows together, as though frowning, then release.
Neck : Gently tilt the head forwards, pushing chin down towards chest, then slowly lift again.
Shoulders : Pull them up towards the ears (shrug), then relax them down towards the feet.
Arms : Stretch the arms away from the body, reach, then relax.
Legs : Push the toes away from the body, then pull them towards the body, then relax.
Wrists & hands : Stretch the wrist by pulling the hand up towards you, & stretch out the fingers & thumbs, then relax. 
Spend some time lying quietly after your relaxation with your eyes closed. When you feel ready, stretch and get up slowly.

Be careful about what you eat.  Try to eat a well balanced diet, eating if you can three regular meals a day. Eat foods which will release energy slowly and are likely to have a calming effect.  Food or drink high in sugar may give you instant energy, but in the long term may wind you up feeling more nervy and edgy than you did before. Also limit your consumption of caffeine.

Study desk


Memory can be strongly influenced by the environment we are in at the time of learning, and sometimes that means we need that same environment to be able to remember things.  Use this to your advantage by studying in conditions that are as close to those of the exam as possible.!  This does not mean that studying with the TV on in the background, whilst lying down, or late at night can be less helpful than studying somewhere like the library during the day, seated at a desk. It might sound boring – but try it for yourself & see if it makes a difference.



RTA Course manual – Successfully supporting students with depression, anxiety & stress.
University of Leicester – Exam Stress











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