Addressing Exam Anxieties

by Dahlia Miller
May 2005

“Most people are about as happy as they make up their mind to be.”
Abraham Lincoln (1809-1865)

Exam anxiety is a very real phenomenon for many, many students. And it’s no wonder - a great deal of emphasis is placed on exams, these days. At the same time our society seems to feel uncomfortable with expressing anxiety, so little is done in schools to address students’ anxious feelings.

Below are some typical exam-anxiety behaviours. If you notice yourself, your child, your student, or your friend displaying any of these behaviours, you can help them by taking the time to listen to their fears. Just knowing that someone cares, or that there are other students out there who share the same anxiety about exams, can bring some relief. The second half of this article lists tips for moving beyond exam anxiety. Please pass them on.

Signs of Exam Anxiety

Feeling fearful
Concern about the outcome of exams
Shallow breathing
Tension in the shoulders
Tension in the stomach
Inability to focus
Lack of interest in studying
Overzealous, compulsive studying
Distracted – under-productive studying
Avoiding studying
General uneasiness
Certainty that won’t achieve desired grade on test
Fear about “freezing” at exam
No emotions about exam at all
Shaking hands
Perpetual negative outlook
Focus on history of “bad test” experiences
Thinking everyone else is more prepared
Worrying about not living up to expectations
Worrying about not completing the exam
Worrying about being confused by exam questions
Worrying about studying the wrong material
Forgetting to study
Forgetting time, date of test
Not sleeping well
Not eating well – healthy amounts of healthy foods
Not exercising or playing
Lethargic- lack of interest even in hanging out with friends
Not laughing
Restless mind – can’t settle down to study or relax
Over-reacting emotionally - quick to anger or tears
General negative attitude
Unwillingness to sit down and study
Biting nails – or other nervous habits
Not asking for help or expressing anxious feelings – pretending nothing is wrong
Over-attention to unnecessary details – re-organizing books, polishing shoes
Feelings of overwhelm
Feelings of anger or powerlessness

What Can We Do To Alleviate Exam Anxiety?

  • Recognize anxious thoughts and behaviours as they arise.
  • Talk with someone about your feelings.
  • Gain some perspective – how important is this grade in the scope of your life?
  • Consider this an opportunity to grow – you won’t feel as anxious next time if you transform some of your worry now.
  • Practise relaxation techniques – deep breathing – try just watching your belly as you take ten breaths.
  • Meditate - listen to meditation tapes.
  • Relax your muscles; your shoulders; especially your facial muscles.
  • Eat at least four or five fruits and vegetables per day.
  • Avoid caffeine and sugar.
  • Listen to your words – don’t criticize your study/exam-writing abilities.
  • Acknowledge all that you are doing to prepare – give yourself credit.
  • Read some of our articles on exam prep and study skills for tips on how to prepare.
  • Go for a walk in nature – by the water or in the trees.
  • Exercise – release some of that physical tension.
  • Take some time to play.
  • Exercise your courage.
  • Set some reasonable, achievable goals for yourself – including study goals.
  • Reward yourself when you follow through.
  • Have faith in your future – what are the opportunities in this experience?
  • Set time to study.
  • When you study, do something quick and easy first, then do the hardest thing second.
  • Remember that whatever happens, everything will be alright.
  • Hug someone.
  • View the exam as a challenge to be mastered.
  • Define /identify the rewards you will gain by mastering the challenge of the exam.
  • Encourage an optimistic attitude in yourself – program positive messages.
  • Believe in your ability.
  • Recognize your power – exams are a reality but you are not helpless.
  • Get to work – doing the work will alleviate some of your stress.
  • Partner with someone – share your goals (for studying and exams) and your feelings.

Anxious feelings don’t go away if they are ignored. They need to be brought out in the light of day and recognized. Accepting nervousness and acknowledging it helps to calm the feelings. We can soothe anxieties with positive action. Speaking and acting with confidence and calm will remind us that we are capable of doing what needs to be done.

Now give yourself a pat on the back and go study!

“If you are afraid because you have no self-confidence and feel that nothing you do will ever succeed, stop a while to think it over. Try to see why you imagine you are a loser before you have even started. You won’t find any really valid reason. The problem stems from your way of thinking, not from a real ineptitude.”
H.H. The Dalai Lama