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Managing exam anxiety – top tips from Advice and Counselling

Thursday 31 March 2016

Being anxious about exams is very common, and very normal. The fact is that you are being tested – explicitly about knowledge of your subject and 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 cope or stop feeling able to relax at all in the run-up to exams, especially if they haven’t learned lots of ways of coping with anxious feelings. However well we cope with stress, it can be helpful to learn more useful strategies so 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: www.welfare.qmul.ac.uk/wellbeing
• Attend any revision classes or exam stress workshops available.
• 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: www.welfare.qmul.ac.uk/wellbeing
• 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 – 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 can make you feel more tired, but remember, 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.
 o Don’t try to learn new information – review key points or focus on other things.
 o 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:

• Read the exam paper through twice slowly and carefully.
• Underline key words in questions if you’re allowed.
• Plan your time
 o 10 minutes at the beginning to read exam paper and pick questions.
 o 10 minutes at the end to read through answers and make corrections or add details.
 o Check the number of questions to answer and divide remaining time between questions; it’s better to do three average essays than two brilliant ones but leave the last one not attempted.
 o Stick to your time plan.
• Choosing questions
 o Mark the questions you think you can answer, cross out any you definitely can’t.
 o Decide what suits you – difficult or easy question first? Difficult first whilst still alert? Easy first to boost confidence and relax?
• Write out essay plans
 o Either write all plans first and then add things as you go along or focus on one question at a time (whichever works best for you and the format of exam).
 o Plan your answer
 o Beginning: how you interpret the question; show you understand the key terms.
 o Middle: key points from revision summary notes in response to the question, build each paragraph to give a logical sequence.
 o Conclusion: pull argument together, provide an explicit answer to the question.
 o Once the plan is written, the answer is done; you just have to write it out calmly.  
 o If you leave the answer unfinished the examiner can see from your plan that you meant to go on.
• Look after yourself – wear layers so you can adapt to the temperature; take a snack and remember to drink water.  Take short breaks to stop and think for a moment, breathe, look around the room and refocus.

Managing the symptoms of anxiety and panic:
Focusing attention:
By focusing your attention on something other than your fear and worry, you will interrupt the panic spiral.  Try the exercises below to find the most helpful to you.  Practise often in advance of the exams.
o Focusing on a thought – eg count backwards from 100 in two or carefully describe to yourself your environment or someone’s appearance who is sitting near you or focus all your attention on any sounds in your environment and search for the very quietest sound.
o Focus on the body – do a relaxation exercise, eg clench all the muscles in your body, stay with the tension and hold it as long as possible without causing pain, then slowly release the tension. Relax and pay attention to how different it feels when your body lets go of the tension.
o Focus on the breath – eg sit comfortably; place one hand on your stomach, breathe slowly and evenly through the nose imagining the breath going down into the lungs and around your back filling the whole rib cage. Notice how your stomach lifts as you breathe in and falls as you breathe out.  Say to yourself on the in-breath: “Peace” and on the out-breath: “Calm”.
o Focus on the positives – what you do understand, what you have prepared, what you can do.  Repeat to yourself:  “I am calm, I can do this”.  

During 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 or 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 three. 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 seven of this document: www.welfare.qmul.ac.uk/documents/leaflets/extcircs to find out about the ‘Fit to Sit’ policy.


After the exam:
Plan what you will do afterwards; it doesn’t always help to talk about the exam, so it may be best to avoid this or at least restrict time going over it with others.  If you feel wound up, do some exercise; if you feel exhausted, eat and sleep!

Self-help links:
The Counselling Service at the University of Oxford have produced a great podcast on exams:
podcasts.ox.ac.uk/exam-preparation-and-revision-part-3-exam-itself-during-and-after

Mental Health Foundation Wellbeing Podcasts and Mindfulness course:

www.mentalhealth.org.uk/podcasts-and-videos/mindfulness-10-minute-practice-exercise

On line self-help: mastering worry and anxiety, managing perfectionism and much more: 

www.cci.health.wa.gov.au/resources/consumers.cfm

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