Dealing With Exam Anxiety

Anxiety or nervousness is quite common before an exam. A test or an exam is an important measure for academic success, and often the only deciding factor for the next step in our academic life. This fact can make even the best of us anxious, but this anxiety can sometimes be an advantage. When we are nervous, our body and mind are at their sharpest, giving our performance a boost. However, some people become so anxious that they cannot function at all during an exam. This type of exam anxiety takes a toll on the person’s health as well as his record of academic performance.


Anxiety as a response was designed to help us deal with unforeseen danger. In the stone age, humans were surrounded by predators and other types of threats that needed an immediate escape or reaction. When we feel anxious, the body activates the sympathetic nervous system: higher heart rate, faster breathing, blood circulation is reduced in our extremities

and pumped more into vital organs like our hands and legs, increased sweating, and dilated pupils. These changes in our body tune our body to its optimum level to either stand our ground and fight, or run away from any threats. This is called the fight-or-flight response. Therefore, when someone in the past faced a dangerous animal for example, his body would be prepared to fight it or run away. Anxiety was a vital response when we were constantly surrounded by danger, but has become somewhat obsolete in today’s civilized world.


Nowadays, our anxiety comes from mental distress. We are constantly thinking about the future or the past, which leads us to be afraid of what we might be facing. This is especially true if we have had awful experiences in our past; we become anxious because we believe that the future cannot work out the way we want. The already existing pressure of doing well combined with a fear of

failure can cause extremely intense anxiety in a few people. In the past, our anxiety would reduce when the source of the danger disappeared, but it isn’t as easy to get rid of anxiety if it is coming from our own thoughts.


There are two different kinds of exam anxiety: high and low. Students who experience low anxiety have a little bit of nervousness but not enough to affect their performance. They are able to answer questions and focus on what the exam demands of them. Those with high anxiety however are anxious enough to be in a panicked state. Even the thought of facing an examination can be enough to affect this person severely. Usually, students cope with this by either skipping the exam, or by facing it with extreme fear and markedly underperforming.

Students with really high exam anxiety can benefit from a range of relaxation techniques. The most effective way to cope with this type of anxiety is practicing

mindfulness. Mindfulness is a technique where a person reorients himself to the present moment by paying attention to his bodily senses. Noticing how the chest rises and falls, or how the stomach inflates and deflates during each breath can bring someone to the present moment for example. Moreover, mindfulness also leads to a person acknowledging the anxiety and accepting the feeling. Most of us try to fight off any negative feelings, but end up feeling worse when we fail to eradicate the negativity. This loop can keep us trapped in the throes of anxiety for a long time. Most schools have a trained psychologist or counselor who can also suggest other types of techniques, as well as give special consideration to students as they take their exams.

Here are also some tips that can help curb some of the anxiety before an exam:

Start preparing well ahead of time so that you can feel confident about the material as the exam approaches

Notice the physical responses you have to anxiety so that you know the early signs. This gives you a

chance to tackle it before it gets out of hand.

Notice your negative thoughts and make an effort to encourage yourself more. Every time a negative thought comes up, replace it with some positive affirming thoughts instead.

Using practice exams beforehand can make you feel more prepared for the upcoming exam.

Practice good habits like sleeping for 8-9 hours before the day of the exam, including good nutrition in your diet, exercising frequently, and reaching out for social support when you need it.