Managing exam stress

Almost everyone feels nervous before an exam. Butterflies in the stomach and worrying thoughts - 'Will I be able to answer the questions?' 'Have I done enough revision?' - are indications of exam nerves that are probably familiar to all students.

In fact, a certain amount of nervous tension probably helps us perform to the best of our ability, producing a rush of adrenaline that helps us to feel alert and focused. But too much anxiety can BLOCK thoughts, create a negative frame of mind, and lead to panic and potentially poor exam performance.

There are several things you can do to help manage exam anxiety and turn uncomfortable, panicky thoughts into more creative tension.

It's hard to panic if you are feeling relaxed. Try to establish a pattern of revision that gives you time to relax, especially last thing at night. Experiment until you find the best way of relaxing to suit you - a long bath, exercise, listening to music, a relaxation exercise (Try out the Smiling Minds App for Iphones or exercises on the The Desk website).

Be healthy: physical and emotional exhaustion, means your body and mind are less able to tolerate stress and anxiety. Aim to:

  • get adequate rest (even if your mind is telling you to keep studying),
  • eat well and drink sufficient water, exercise, and
  • give yourself ‘guilt free’ time for social, enjoyable and relaxing activities.

Relaxation and positive stress management techniques can be learned and acquired with practice. Knowing how to relax is invaluable in the lead-up to exams, and on the day itself. If you think you are under-performing in exams due to exam anxiety or panic, do think ahead and seek help. It is vital to learn techniques to help regulate your arousal level, such as slow breathing and progressive muscle relaxation.

It helps to feel as well-prepared as possible – being over prepared means that the responses become more automatic and are less affected by anxiety. Prepare by using our Learning Skills, attending class regularly and completing assessments, doing practice tests or exams from previous years, and approaching your lecturers to clarify the exam format.

As well as thinking about the subjects you are revising, it can be useful to pay attention to practical aspects of the exam. Find out where it is scheduled to take place and how long it will take you to get there. It's a good idea to go and look at the room/building so that it feels more familiar. Make sure you know the rules and regulations about what you can take into the exam room etc.

Put yourself into a positive frame of mind by imagining how you would like things to go. Imagine yourself turning up for the exam feeling confident and relaxed - try to picture it in as much detail as possible. Rather like rehearsing for a part in a play, this can replace negative, anxious thoughts with more positive ones.

Practice standing up to Catastrophic Thinking: Thoughts have a direct link to anxiety levels. Negative or catastrophic thinking regarding exams will increase anxiety. Try some of the following:

  • Become aware of your negative or catastrophic thinking – jotting your thoughts down on a piece of paper can help you notice patterns in your thoughts and/or observe when your thinking is not as helpful.
  • Look for the evidence for the negative thought. Challenge it. Question it. Is this thought really reality?
  • Try positive self-talk or thought stopping techniques (see Anxiety Stopping Techniques)

Rather than trying to learn any new material, perhaps just look over a few key points.

Arrive at the exam hall comfortably in time but not too early; the tension hanging over this short period of waiting just before the exam is highly contagious so you do well to minimize your exposure to it!

It is natural to feel some anxiety when you go into the examination room. Use the few minutes before you are allowed to begin to do some simple relaxation and breathing exercises; sit back and separate yourself mentally from those who are getting stressed.

Don't work to the last minute on the night or morning before the exam. Last-minute revision may leave you feeling muddled and anxious.

Looking after yourself - for example, getting enough rest and eating reasonably - is more important and effective than trying to do some last minute cramming. This is a day to have planned beforehand and to take things gently in order to conserve your energy for the examination(s).

Don't get up very early, as this will just make you more tired. Eat breakfast, but do not drink too much  liquid! If you have spare time, do something you find relaxing - have a bath, go for a stroll - and keep away from those whose stress levels are contagious.

Here are some tried and tested remedies to the 'I can't answer anything' feeling and other worrying thoughts about exams.

When you get into the exam room and sit down, the following approach can help settle your nerves:

  • Take a deep breath in and a long breath out
  • Breathe in again and straighten your back - as if someone were pulling a lever between your shoulder blades
  • Look straight ahead at something inanimate (the wall, a picture, the clock...) and focus your mind on the positive thought 'I CAN DO this exam' as you breathe out.
  • Take another deep breath in and a long breath out. Then breathe normally.

You have 10 minutes to read the paper, so do so thoroughly. If you begin to feel panicky again, repeat the focusing exercise. Panicking will stop you reading carefully, so it is important to keep yourself focused and positive. Read the whole paper once, then read it again and mark the questions you think you can answer. Then read those questions carefully - make sure you understand what is required - and select the ones you are going to answer. If you are allowed to do so, underline key words or phrases in the questions.

Decide on the order in which you'll answer the questions. It is usually best to begin with the one you feel most confident about. Think about how you will plan your time, and stick to your plan. You can divide your time equally between them - or according to the marking scheme if questions have different weighting. With essay questions, you will get more marks overall by doing three (say) average answers, than by doing two brilliant ones but leaving the third question undone!

Plan out your answer for each question as you go. If you find that thoughts or ideas about other questions come into your head, jot them down on a separate piece of paper - don't spend time thinking about them now.

Some people write out essay plans to all the questions they need to answer at the beginning, so they can add things as they occur to them while working on other answers; others take each question in order. Which method works best for you, or is most appropriate to the format of your exams? After doing your plan, look back at the question and check you are answering the question asked - you do not get credit for a brilliant answer to a question you were not asked!

Take regular 'micro-breaks': whenever you pause at the end of writing a paragraph or stop to think for a moment, put your pen down and sit back, even if just for a moment.

If your concentration wanders or you begin to feel panicky, you could try the focusing exercise again, or use one of the following techniques to help you overcome anxious thoughts. If you are worried that you haven't got time to spare on this, remember that taking 5 or 10 minutes NOW may save you spending the rest of the exam in a state of panic.

In an examination situation it is not uncommon for one's mind to go blank for a moment, or to be confused by a question put in an unfamiliar way. At these times it is easy to begin to panic. This is likely to take the form of doom-laden thoughts as well as physical symptoms such as feeling your heart racing, feeling faint, hot or sweaty. Although these symptoms are disturbing, perhaps even frightening, they are in fact very common and are not at all dangerous.

First, pause for a few moments: put your pen down and sit back; slow your breathing down a little. Let your body relax. Relaxation and breathing exercises will help to reduce these symptoms. Reassure yourself that you are not going to collapse or lose control - these things never happen because of anxiety. Push upsetting thoughts to the back of your mind and re-focus your attention on relaxing, and then back on the exam itself. No matter how bad the anxiety feels, do not leave the exam as the anxiety level will fall within a short space of time. Panic is always time limited and the symptoms will reduce in a short while.

Try some of these Anxiety Stopping Techniques

Thought-stopping technique

When we become anxious we begin to have negative thoughts ('I can't answer anything', 'I'm going to panic' etc). If this is happening, halt the spiralling thoughts by mentally shouting 'STOP!'. Or picture a road STOP sign, or traffic lights on red. Once you have literally stopped the thoughts, you can continue planning, or practise a relaxation technique.

Creating mild pain

Pain effectively overrides all other thoughts and impulses. Even very mild pain - such as lightly pressing your fingernails into your palm - can block feelings of anxiety. Some people find it helpful to place an elastic band around one wrist, and lightly twang it when they are becoming anxious.

Use a mantra

Derived from meditation, a mantra is a word or phrase which you repeat to yourself. Saying something like 'calm' or 'relax' under your breath or in your head, over and over again, can help defuse anxiety.


Looking out of the window, noticing the number of people with red hair, counting the number of desks in each row... all help to distract your attention from anxious thoughts and keep your mind busy. Mental games such as making words out of another word or title, using alphabetical lists etc are all good forms of distraction.

Bridging objects

It can help to carry or wear something with positive associations with another person or place. Touching this bridging object can be comforting in its own right, then allow yourself a few minutes to think about the person or situation which makes you feel good. This can have a really calming effect.


In exam anxiety or panic we often give ourselves negative messages, 'I can't do this' 'I'm going to fail' 'I'm useless'. Try to consciously replace these with positive, encouraging thoughts: 'This is just anxiety, it can't harm me', 'Relax, concentrate, it's going to be OK', 'I'm getting there, nearly over'.

Whichever of the distraction techniques has worked for you, finish by going through the refocusing exercise (it only takes 30 seconds or so, but may have a profound effect on your ability to believe in yourself and the task in hand).

Different techniques work for different people, so it's worth experimenting to find the ones that are right for you. Developing techniques for managing panic can take time, so it pays to keep practicing. When you are able, get back to work - remember that it is better to put something down rather than nothing.

Before the day of the exam, it can be a good idea to decide what you are going to do immediately after the exam ends. Standing around and joining in with others' delight or dismay is almost always discouraging. If you have something already planned you can simply leave others to do the post-mortem, while you go and do something more enjoyable.

If you are exhausted, some food or a sleep may help; if you are still wound up, you could do something physical, such as go for a run or a swim. If you are going to meet up with someone, you could agree with them that you will only talk about the exam for 5 minutes - or even not at all.