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Managing exam anxiety – top tips from the Advice and Counselling Service

Thursday 23 April 2015

Being anxious about exams is very common, and very normal. The fact is that you are being tested, explicitly about knowledge of your subject, but implicitly for your ability to perform under pressure, so in a way, you are meant to be anxious! Performing under stressful conditions is an important attribute in the workplace, and being a graduate shows employers that you have proved you can do this. However, some people can become so anxious that they feel as though they can’t function at all, especially if they haven’t learned lots of ways of coping with anxious feelings.

Here are some things that can help…

Before the exam day:

  • Explore ways of coping with anxiety and exam stress – We have lots of books in the library to help: http://www.welfare.qmul.ac.uk/wellbeing/bibliotherapy/booklist/index.html#anxiety
  • Find some form of regular exercise you can do – even if it’s just walking every day – it’s excellent for stress busting and will help you sleep too.
  • Practise breathing, relaxation and focusing exercises – you can find many of these online if you do a web search and we have some links on our website here: http://www.welfare.qmul.ac.uk/wellbeing/problems/attacks/index.html
  • Some people find listening to music or light reading helpful for immediately before the exam….
  • If you feel like you’re struggling with stress, talk to someone you trust or your academic tutor about it – it can really help to reduce your worries.
  • Know when and where the exam is – if possible visit the room so that it feels a little familiar.
  • Have everything you need to take with you prepared before the day.

On the day of the exam:

  • Rest and eat properly – it’s much more important than last-minute cramming!
  • Getting up too early will make you tired; you can still do well in an exam even if you haven’t slept well the night before!
  • Avoid strong coffee or energy drinks on an empty stomach; this can lead to feeling light-headed and add extra anxiety. 
  • Eat breakfast even if you feel sick (bread, crackers or a cereal bar will help to settle the stomach).
  • Last-minute revision may make you feel muddled and anxious.
    - Don’t try to learn new information – review key points or focus on other things.
    - Leave text books and notes at home.
  • Do something relaxing (a bath or a walk, somewhere green if possible).
  • Arrive in good time (not too late or early).
  • Avoid anxious others – it’s contagious!
  • Anxiety IS normal; use spare minutes to do relaxation / breathing exercises.

During the exam:

If you start to panic in the exam 
If your mind goes blank, you are confused by a question or you panic that you can’t answer anything…

  • Put your pen down, sip your water, sit back and take a moment to think.
  • Remind yourself: “this is just anxiety, it can’t hurt me, panic is not dangerous, panic is always time limited, it is passing, and I will feel calm in a moment”.
  • Try doodling for a moment and write any words that come to your mind – this will begin to release the relaxation response. After a minute or two, do a spider diagram and in the middle write: “What do I think in response to this question?” with your thoughts coming from it.
  • When you are able, get back to work – better to write something than nothing. 

If nothing seems to be working or you feel unwell:

  • Ask the invigilator if you can leave the room briefly to get some fresh air, go to the toilet. 
  • Shake your hands and body vigorously, jump up and down, turn around on the spot breathing in and out slowly to the count of 3. Slowly bend forward, let your knees be soft and unclenched, let your arms and head hang down, relax the muscles in your neck.  Take some slow breaths through your nose and then on the in-breath straighten your knees a little (don’t tense them) and on the out-breath bend them a little (practise this at home before the exam).
  • When you feel calmer, go back in and continue.

If nothing helps and after 10 minutes you still feel too anxious to continue, leave the exam and seek a medical certificate immediately by visiting your GP, to document that you were unwell. See page 9 of this document http://www.welfare.qmul.ac.uk/documents/leaflets/extcircs/151311.pdf

After the exam:

Plan what you will do afterwards; don’t talk about the exam or at least restrict time talking about the exam. If you feel wound up, do some exercise; if you feel exhausted, eat and sleep.

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