Preparing for Exams – Part 1a – managing exam anxiety


The Preparing for Exams series was first posted in 2017. Each year now we update the posts and repost them as exams approach. Let’s face it, the rules for preparing for exams don’t really change that much over time. 

So, we are leading into exam time, and there is a good chance you are starting to feel a little tense.

For the most part that is a good thing. A little tension and stress is motivating. Without it you wouldn’t be hitting the books and trying to cram all that information in your head as we speak. We even have a name for good stress – eustress.

Also, a little bit of tension and nerves leading into, and on exam day, is perfectly normal. If you aren’t a bit tense you are probably a) medicated, b) super smart and have studied thoroughly or c) completely unaware of what is about to happen.

For some however, the stress of exams can get a little out of hand and they start feeling very anxious, and that anxiety gets in the way of preparing effectively and performing on the day.

In today’s post, I take a look at exam anxiety – what is it, and how can you manage it?


What is exam anxiety?

Imagine exam nerves but multiplied by 1000 and you have exam anxiety.

Exam anxiety can present in many different ways but is often a full body and mind experience encompassing physical, emotional, behavioural and cognitive symptoms. The range of symptoms reflect the chronic or intense activation of the sympathetic nervous system, a division of our nervous system designed to prepare us for stressful or threatening situations.

Short-term activation of the sympathetic nervous system is all good. Chronic activation not so good.

Physical: headaches, nausea or diarrhoea, body temperature changes, sweating, shortness of breath, light-headedness or fainting, rapid heart beat, and/or dry mouth, muscle tension

Emotional: excessive feelings of fear, disappointment, anger, depression, uncontrollable crying or laughing, feelings of helplessness, feelings of dread

Behavioural: fidgeting, pacing, substance use, avoidance of study, engaging in distracting activities

Cognitive: racing thoughts, ‘going blank’, difficulty concentrating, negative self-talk, comparing self to others, difficulty organising your thoughts, catastrophic thoughts, obsessing about the exams

Unlike normal levels of stress, which are motivating and lead to better performance, exam anxiety inhibits a student’s ability to absorb, retain and recall information. It acts like a block in the brain that stops information getting in or out. It is that feeling of being overwhelmed when you try to study and going blank during the exam.


How can you manage it?

I’ll be honest. My stress management strategies include eating a bag of Smiths Chips and watering the next door neighbour’s dog. There are however some more effective strategies.

Let’s look at a couple that you can START USING TODAY. I’ll explore a few more in the coming days.


Appropriate self-care

It has almost become a life cliche, but getting enough sleep, eating a good diet, and engaging in some regular physical activity are all linked to mood, well-being and functioning. These are foundational activities that govern the health of our nervous system, the physical part of you that creates all of your experiences. A healthier nervous system is a less anxious nervous system.

You can argue it all you want, but your late nights, diet of 2-minute noodles and beer, and 8-hour Mother-fuelled Netflix marathons are not turning you into the study machine required to ace your exams. Sure your 20+ body is handling it a lot better than my 40+ body would, but don’t pretend it is helping.

And before you start abusing me saying my recommendations of “get enough sleep, eat a good diet, and engage in some regular physical activity” are “too general” and “fluffy” and “imprecise”, cop this:

Sleep: Aim for 8 hours a night. Regular sleep and wake times. Good sleep hygiene. Have specific questions about sleep? – start with the Sleep Health Foundation Fact Sheets.

Diet: eat this or this. Confused about food or have stupid guts? See a dietician.

Coffee: No more than 4 cups in a day. Under that, coffee is probably providing a mild benefit. 

Energy drinks: Give them a miss – they are nutritionally quite useless.

Alcohol intake: no more than 2 standard drinks in a day, no more than 4 standard drinks in a single occasion. Kidding yourself about what constitutes a standard drink? Try here. Recent research is suggesting there is ‘no safe level of alcohol intake’, so the old ‘red wine is good for my heart’ is a furfy. Alcohol also impairs sleep which is critical to the learning process.

Drug intake: You can go on telling yourself that “this is my period of experimentation and getting to know myself” but there are plenty of other ways to do that. Lay off drugs (except those you are prescribed). If it is any consolation, I think in the coming years, some of the substances currently considered illicit (e.g. will start being used for the treatment of mental health problems. That doesn’t however make them good study aids!

Physical activity: 150-300 minutes of moderate intensity per week or 75-150 minutes of vigorous per week. Try to be active most days. Break up periods of sitting as often as possible. Use a pomodoro timer to study/work in timed slots. Use breaks to stand up, move around, and re-energise. Read more here.

Think you’ve got a valid reason why these recommendations don’t apply to you? – Fair enough but talk to your GP or one of ours about what might be more appropriate for you. Obviously, these guidelines do vary a bit by health status, age and gender.

By my reckoning, it’s a couple of weeks before exams. Plenty of time to implement some of these simple lifestyle changes, none of which will hurt your study plans.


Manage the physical tension

Lifestyle changes tend to lower our overall anxiety level (our baseline), but what about managing anxiety in the moment?

Anxiety is both a physical and psychological process. When confronted with a threat or challenge, our body readies us for action. Some of the unpleasant symptoms of anxiety are actually our body readying itself to take action (e.g. increased heart rate, alertness, breathing). Our conscious minds interpret that as danger and we experience fear or anxiety alongside these physical changes.

This gives us a way into the anxiety – through physical processes. For example, relaxation, breathing and mindfulness techniques help communicate to the body that it is time to relax which can then have flow-on effects to your state of mind.

The problem is it takes practice to use relaxation, breathing and mindfulness techniques to tell our bodies to calm down. But most of us only think of using these techniques when we are freaking out. If you only start using relaxation/mindfulness techniques right in the middle of your most stressful event, it may not work very well. That is like rocking up at the golf course just once a year, and then complaining that you are crap at golf.

So, relaxation, breathing and mindfulness techniques require practice, so start TODAY, like RIGHT NOW!. By exam time you will be a master (well, at least a bit better) and the techniques will work more effectively during periods of high stress. Here are 5, 1-minute stress management strategies (stolen from here) to get you started. Try a few. See which ones relax you more. Practice them until you can do them on command.

Tension release:
Tense your muscles, one area at a time, and enjoy the relaxation upon release.
Start by taking a deep breath and holding it as you curl your toes for about 5 seconds, then breath out and relax your toes at the same time.
Repeat the process with your calves, thighs, buttocks, arms, shoulders, jaws and finally your eyelids.
Notice the difference in feeling between tensed and relaxed muscles.
Feel no shame if you fart loudly.

Want a more detailed description, try this.

Deep breathing:
When tense, we often breathe rapidly from the upper chest. A full, deep slow breath helps relieve tension.
Take a deep breath, letting your abdomen expand fully. Let it push your tummy out like an alien bursting forth
Hold the breath for about 3 seconds.
Let your breath out all at once (with a big sigh if you want and are alone).
As you exhale, relax your jaw and shoulders. Think about calm stuff like sleeping puppies, lying under a big shady tree on a warm day, or watching Justin Bieber get run over.

Focused breathing:
When our minds are filled with stressful thoughts, our bodies become stressed. Focusing on body processes can help calm mental activity, which in turn can result in physical relaxation. This technique will help you take a break from stressful thoughts.

With your eyes closed, shift your attention to the tip of your nose.
As you breathe in, become aware of the air entering your nostrils.
As you breathe out, be aware of the sensations of air passing back out. Do this several times.
Repeat several times: breathe in… breathe out… breathe in… breathe out…

For other mindful type exercises, try Smiling Mind

There are whole channels devoted to breathing techniques.

Ideal relaxation:
Picture a place (real or imagined) where you can be totally relaxed.
With your eyes closed, take a moment to visualize an ideal place to relax. Make it any place attractive to you.
Using all senses, feel yourself in comfortable clothes, hearing pleasant sounds, and seeing beautiful colours.
Visit this spot whenever you need to relax – unless you are operating heavy machinery.

4-7-8 breathing:
Breathing, but more slow and sensual like a Barry White CD.

Exhale with sound through your mouth to the count of eight
Inhale quietly through your nose to the count of four
Hold your breath to the count of seven (this can actually be a bit difficult, so try another technique if this is hard)
Repeat for four breath cycles, and ideally twice a day

This might be a good app for discovering a range of techniques to manage anxiety and stress:

This is a fantastic book on stress management and relaxation strategies. You learn in detail about the different options and how to build them into a relaxation plan. Contact me if you can’t afford it.


Seek help

If you’ve tidied up your lifestyle, spent some time experimenting with different relaxation strategies but are still struggling, then you might need to upgrade to a higher level of support.

This could mean doing a formal program like Ths Way Up’s student wellbeing program –

Or it might mean making an appointment to see one of our counsellors –

There’s no shame in seeking more support. Often those with more persistent anxiety or stress are those who have other things going on in their lives that are contributing to it. All of us need help at some point to cope with accumulated stressors. Don’t suffer in silence. Reach out.


Next on the exam series…………..

Next we tackle the best study tips, so all that wonderful gooey knowledge can be transferred from the book, to your newly relaxed brain.

If you want a bit more on preparing psychologically for exams, you might also like Part 1b in the Preparing for Exams series called 4 tips for managing exam stress.

Want to comment on this article, or ask me a question about the health and well-being services available to you as a student? Feel free to comment below, abuse me on Twitter  or email me (


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Academic skills Psychological Tools

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