How to deal with exam anxiety

15 May 2023

With the exam period looming, many young people will be feeling anxious and stressed. It is important to take care of your physical and mental wellbeing in the lead up to the exams and during the lengthy revision period.

Dr Alison Wallis, former consultant clinical psychologist for CAMHS at Sussex Partnership, wrote a blog to help young people deal with anxiety during this difficult time.

Feeling anxious, worried or having butterflies is the same for all of us. It is a way of keeping us safe. It is our bodies way of saying "watch out, we are under attack or there is a threat". Feeling worried can help us think and react faster if the threat is about to happen. If the threat is a long way off, it can keep us feeling really uncomfortable and we can have worrying thoughts as well as feelings.

This is "anticipatory anxiety" and is there to keep us ready to act. It usually goes away once we have dealt with the threat or problem. Exams and the talk about exams can feel like it goes on for ages. This can lead us to feeling worried a lot. A bit of worry will help us to be motivated to prepare, but too much can get in the way of our concentration and thinking.

The trick is to know we will feel worried, use that to get motivated and try to manage it so it doesn’t get the better of us.

What we can do:

  • Plan a break - we can only put in full concentration for about 30-45 minutes, so have regular breaks. It isn't being lazy, it is a chance to recharge
  • Exercise, run around, shout or sing loudly - this might be a bit annoying for those around us but it gets rid of extra adrenalin and helps our bodies feel calmer
  • Eat well and keep hydrated - when we worry, our body tells us to stay alert and be ready, this can make us feel less hungry or thirsty. Food and water actually help us concentrate and learn so build in time to do both.
  • Take time away - if you have been able to plan a revision time table or plan to, make sure you give yourself some proper down time. This will remind your body it is fine and your mind that there is life outside of the screen.
  • If possible revise and rest in separate places - this isn't always possible, but if you can do things in different places, it reminds our body that there is one place for work and another for rest.
  • Make time for the things you enjoy. The exams will finish and you don't want to have forgotten how to have fun.
  • All of these things tell our body it can come down from high alert and although worry will still be there, you will be in charge.

How we can help ourselves:

Learn to relax your body. This is quite difficult and can take time to learn. There are lots of good websites that can talk you through progressive relaxation, including Young Minds

Helpful breathing. When we worry, we breath more quickly to get lots of oxygen into our bloodstream so that we can react. If we don't need to react physically this can lead to us feeling more worried. Try square breathing, it is really easy and once you get the hang of it, you can do it anywhere and no one will even notice. You breath in for four breaths through your nose, out for four breaths through your mouth and repeat.

Distraction and being mindful can help in the short term - distracting ourselves from a situation can help with worry. You can find three things you like to see, touch, hear and smell or any combination of those. You can also describe something you notice in lots of details. All of these things help to calm your mind.

What can I do with my thoughts?

Usually worry feelings come with worry thoughts. These can often start with "what if ….?" And end with something we don't want to happen. It is helpful to think about what type of thought you might have about exams.

Some will help us work and stay motivated. Some won't and will help the worry stay in place. It can be helpful to try and notice when these thoughts are happening and ask yourself "is that true? Do I know that for sure?", you can practise an answer that  is helpful for you, you can tell yourself that is your worry script and a better one might be, "they will be over soon", "I am more than my exams", "I am working hard so that I can do as well as I can, I am not a fortune teller who can know I will fail".

You might want to have a go at writing a different script with some help from someone you trust. You don't have to believe it all but it will remind you that there is always more than one outcome.

You might want to add what makes you you and unique. Remember what you enjoy and focus on what you would like to do when they finish.

Last thing, talk to someone if it is getting too much, most of us have done exams. You might need to remind people that you want them to listen and understand how it is for you at the moment not just tell you it will all be fine.

If you're feeling low or struggling to cope, text SUSSEX to 85258 for free, confidential support at any time of day or night. You will be connected to a trained volunteer who can help with anything you're struggling with, including anxiety, stress, loneliness or depression.