Exam Anxiety – How To Deal


It’s not weird to get nervous about an exam. It’s normal to feel some stress in the days leading up to the exam, and having butterflies in your stomach on the morning of the exam is pretty much to be expected.

It’s not like the atmosphere of the exam room helps you calm down either – the desks spaced far apart to discourage cheating, the anxious faces of your classmates, strange requirements like signing in or having to leave your stuff at the entrance to the room – it all makes you feel a little sweaty.

Then, when you open the exam, there can be a moment where you look at the first question and think to yourself, “Huh?” You have to read it over a couple of times to get it, or move on until you find one you can answer. But once you put pencil to paper, you start to roll along.

That’s normal.

What’s not normal is Exam Anxiety – when the anxiety about writing an exam interferes to the point where it impacts your peformance on the exam. A little anxiety is good – it motivates you to perform your best. But if it gets to the point where you freak out even when you hear the word “quiz” or feel like you can’t even get out of your car in the parking lot because you are too panicked about entering the exam room, you might be dealing with Exam Anxiety.

What causes exam anxiety?

  • Not being prepared for the exam (cramming, poor time management, poor study habits)
  • Worrying about your past performance on exams
  • Worrying about how other students are doing on the exam
  • Thinking about the consequences of failing/doing poorly
  • Making your self-worth dependent on your grades

Do I have exam anxiety?

Here are some clues to how you might feel during the exam if you have Exam Anxiety:

  • nervous
  • palms sweating
  • sense of panic
  • difficulty breathing
  • completely blanking out during the exam, and then remembering everything as soon as you leave the exam room

You might find your thinking during the exam being impacted – you have trouble concentrating, you can’t understand the questions or organize your thoughts, your mind goes completely blank, you can’t stop worrying about failing or keeping thoughts like “I’m never going to pass this!” out of your head.

You might feel upset, irritable, overwhelmed, helpless and frustrated when you think about the exam.

You might experience headaches and stomachaches, nausea, shortness of breath, and sweating when you think about the exam and during the exam.

You might find yourself crying about it, procrastinating from studying, using caffeine to keep yourself awake, having difficulty sleeping, and either eating too much or not having much of an appetite at all.

All of these thoughts, feelings, physical reactions, and behaviours are symptoms of exam anxiety. The good news is, there are strategies to help you reduce these things.

Dealing With Exam Anxiety

1. Thoughts and Feelings

If you feel anxious, you often think negatively.
If you can get rid of negative thoughts, you can feel less anxious.
You need to replace negative messages with positive, and realistic, thoughts:
Eg, “I have no clue what this exam is talking about, I’m going to completely fail and flunk out of college and never end up with a degree or a good job!”
Replace this with:
“There might be some questions that I don’t know, but I will move on until I find questions I can answer, then go back to the harder ones and do the best I can.”

2. Physical Reactions

Deep breathing, progressive muscle relaxation, visualization/imagery and yoga are all relaxation methods that can help you reduce the phsyical symptoms of anxiety.

3. Behavior

If you can change your behaviours before the exam, you have a better chance of reducing anxiety by being physically and mentally prepared. Remember to eat well, get lots of sleep, and exercise to keep your body physically ready. Also remember that using alcohol or drugs, even caffeine, can impact your performance negatively.

Practice will help you familiarize yourself with the content of the exam and feel ready for the format of the exam. Practicing can include asking yourself questions, taking part in study groups, or doing practice tests/quizzes to identify weak areas. Give yourself lots of time to practice – that way, you have time to work on weaker areas. The more you practice, the better you get.

Prepare for the exam to the best of your ability. Study the material to the point where you can recall it even if you are under stress – don’t cram it all into your brain the night before if exam anxiety is an issue for you. If you need tutoring or help managing your time, arrange to get it.

Where can I get help?

If you want help studying or learning to manage time, most schools have some kind of tutoring system or student service centre where you can learn some tips on studying for and taking exams. Here at Red Deer College, Student Success Services is the place to go (Room 1402).

If you are more worried about how to deal with the excessive anxiety you feel regarding exams, check out your school’s counselling services. Again, Student Success Services at Red Deer College is the place to start – you’ll be able to talk to a counsellor about your problems.

Thanks to Kylie, a counsellor and provisional psychologist at Student Success Services, for providing this information on exam anxiety.

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One response to “Exam Anxiety – How To Deal

  1. Pingback: Facing the Final: Tip #2 for Exam Success - The Power of Positive Thinking « Bachelor of Arts at Red Deer College

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