Exam Stress

Taking exams is bound to be stressful because of what's at stake. You may be feeling a weight of expectation from your family, school, university or workplace to succeed. You may be afraid you're not good enough, or haven't worked hard enough.

A little bit of exam stress is good because motivates us to knuckle down and work hard. But exams can make stress levels get out of hand, which can stop us from performing our best. So it's important to address it and get it back under control.

For some young people, the increased pressure around exam time may lead to them experiencing stress symptoms much more readily than others.

Stress can be defined as 'the adverse reaction people have to excessive pressure or other types of demands placed on them'.

It varies from person to person and in many ways a stress response is a normal physical response to events that make you feel threatened or that upset your balance in some way.

However, we do know that prolonged stress can lead to illness, both mental and physical.

Exam stress is a natural reaction to pressure caused for a number of reasons including:

  • Inability to accept failure or uncertainty
  • Pessimism or negative self-talk
  • Unrealistic expectations (either by the  young person or their parents)
  • Unpreparedness
  • Life transitions
  • Family issues and/or relationship difficulties
  • Financial problems
  • Performance anxiety

When a person is stressed over something, their body reacts accordingly. If adequate approaches for managing extreme exam stress aren't developed it can have negative results including lower grades than anticipated or required.

Over the long term, various physical health problems such as digestive problems, eczema, as well as mental health issues such as anxiety or depression could develop

Some people feel pressure and develop stress symptoms more than others. Stress responses can differ between males and females as well, with research showing females present internal symptoms and responses such as nausea, butterflies and feelings of inadequacy which can lead to sadness and depression. Males tend to externalise their anxiety and can become increasingly irritable or angry.

When you are faced with increased pressure (in this case at exam time) your body can go into a 'fight or flight' response which releases increased amounts of adrenalin into the body. This can lead to various symptoms including:

  • Feeling cranky and irritable (increased yelling or crying, swearing, hitting)
  • Indecisiveness and/or confusion
  • Problems with going to sleep or getting up in the morning
  • Strongly beating heart, sweating
  • Mild chest pains, back pains, nausea, trembling, shortness of breath
  • Minor stomach upsets
  • Possible skin breakouts
  • Teeth grinding, nail biting and fidgeting
  • Constipation or diarrhoea
  • Going blank in the exam

If exam stress or stress in general is not resolved responsibly, it can lead to more serious problems like:

  • Increased smoking, drinking or drug use
  • Losing touch with friends
  • Feeling inadequate, negative self-talk, blaming

Here is a list of strategies that may help you to manage exam stress.

Effective study and learning habits

Reduce the exam stress by establishing effective study and learning habits

  • Find a quiet place to study without distractions. Make sure your table is uncluttered so you can focus better
  • Find out exactly what the test involves - are there past test papers you can look at to help you understand what to expect?
  • Ask for help or ask your teacher for clarity if you are unsure of something or if you feel confused
  • Make 'mind maps' to collect ideas and summarise thoughts - use bright colours to help remember important links
  • Plan your study schedule early on so you have sufficient time to study. It can be helpful to develop a clear, realistic plan of what you want to cover in each study session. Can you break it down into small chunks?
  • Take a short rest and move around in between each part of your study.
  • It can be useful having someone to listen or practise with

Healthy sleeping and eating habits

  • Stick to a routine of going to bed at a reasonable time. Avoid late night TV shows or movies
  • Eat regularly and make time to have fun and exercise
  • Cut back on coffee or any other stimulants which you may be using, as these can increase agitation. Drink lots of water instead
  • Take time out when you eat, rather than carrying on with study
  • Eat fresh fruit, veggies, cereals, grains, nuts and protein - they are all good for the brain and blood sugar levels
  • Eat when you get hungry. This keeps blood sugar and hydration levels steady
  • Avoid junk food if possible. It will bring a sudden sugar high which will fall away quickly, leaving a person feeling tired

Relaxation ideas to help you cope with exam stress

  • Always relax before you go to bed after concentrating for long periods of time. Activities such as reading a short story may help you unwind and sleep better.
  • Go out for a walk, run or do some other exercise you enjoy
  • Relaxation techniques such as listening to some gentle music, lying down, closing your eyes and taking a deep breath while visualising a calming scene such as a deserted beach
  • Develop a positive mindset by visualising success - this can really help with self-confidence
  • Avoid rushing on the day of the exam by organising and packing everything you need to take with you the night before

Ideas for exam day

  • Eat a good and light breakfast - something that will sustain you and help them concentrate
  • Try to arrive at school or the exam venue early
  • Go to the toilet before the exam starts
  • Keep away from people who may agitate you before the test or may say unhelpful, anxiety-provoking comments
  • Try writing about your thoughts and feelings at least 10 minutes before the exam to free up brainpower from focusing on emotions, so you can focus on the test material instead
  • Take time to slow your breathing and relax when you first sit down in the exam room
  • Skim over the exam paper, underlining key words and instructions
  • Work out how long you have for each question or section
  • Watch out for the wording of the questions - you need to understand and address what the question is really asking
  • Answer the questions you find easiest first to build your confidence, then as you relax more move on to more difficult ones
  • Don't worry about how long others are taking but keep an eye on the clock to ensure you have enough time to answer the more difficult questions
  • Re-read answers if possible and make any changes that are necessary - correct spelling, check workings

Post-exam tip

If you felt you were not able to do well in the exam and feel very upset about it, there is always a second chance and passing an exam is only part of the story. It may be helpful to take some time to discuss any problems you had so you can avoid them next time.

The following websites have plenty of support and advice on exam stress: