Have you ever studied hard for an exam, only to find that your mind goes blank as soon as the exam begins? Or perhaps instead of thinking of the answer, your brain is busy with panicked thoughts about how you are going to fail. Or maybe you’ve noticed that your heart is racing uncontrollably and you’re beginning to feel faint. If this kind of scene is all too familiar, read on – you may be experiencing exam anxiety.
EXAM STRESS OR EXAM ANXIETY?
Most people experience stress when it comes to sitting exams. In fact, a small amount of stress can actually help you perform better! However, exam anxiety is somewhat different - it relates to having anxiety about exams that is so intense and distressing that it is debilitating and may even lead to interfering with your performance. Exam anxiety involves intense fear both before and during an exam.
Exam anxiety is a situation-specific form of anxiety. It has been described as having two main components :
The cognitive component, typically referred to as excessive worry about exams and their consequences.
The physiological component, commonly referred to as emotionality that accompanies testing situations.
EXAM ANXIETY SYMPTOMS
Much like other forms of anxiety the symptoms of exam anxiety can be grouped in to cognitive, physical, and behavioural symptoms. Here’s how this looks for exam anxiety:
COGNITIVE SYMPTOMS OF EXAM ANXIETY
Excessive worry and unhelpful thinking styles are common in exam anxiety. This can include:
Catastrophic thoughts about your performance and the impact it will have on your life (e.g. “I am going to fail this exam, which means I will be kicked out of uni!”)
Unrealistic comparisons to your peers (e.g. “Everyone else in this exam is better prepared than I am!”)
Disregarding that you’ve adequately prepared for your exams, and instead focusing on your anxiety as a sign that you’re unprepared (i.e. relying on ‘emotional reasoning’)
Unfortunately, at its extreme, exam anxiety can interfere with your cognitive performance, including your concentration, processing speed, or your ability to recall information.
PHYSICAL SYMPTOMS OF EXAM ANXIETY
Exam anxiety can lead to a range of uncomfortable physical symptoms including increased heart rate, shortness of breath, and light-headedness. Certainly, these strong sensations can be distracting when you’re trying to focus on your exams.
In some cases, these physical symptoms can become so intense that they lead to a panic attack. If this sounds familiar, take a look at our blog post on What to do in case of a Panic Attack for tips to help you manage panic attacks.
BEHAVIOURAL SYMPTOMS OF EXAM ANXIETY
Research suggests that higher levels of exam anxiety are associated with lower levels of performance . It is also common for people experiencing exam anxiety to try and avoid or delay testing situations where possible. When exam anxiety is more severe, this can lead to the person dropping out of university, just to avoid their feared situation.
TREATMENT FOR EXAM ANXIETY
When considering treatment for exam anxiety, the following options have been found to be beneficial :
BEHAVIOURAL THERAPY: Behavioural therapy focuses on improving the physical symptoms of anxiety associated with exam anxiety. It typically involves teaching the person a range of relaxation techniques but may also include elements of exposure.
COGNITIVE BEHAVIOURAL THERAPY (CBT): CBT approaches are commonly used in treating exam anxiety. CBT focusses on helping the person identify and challenge unhelpful thoughts about exams that may be impacting performance. This is combined with the techniques of behavioural therapy to increase relaxation and address any problematic behaviours, such as avoidance.
STUDY SKILLS TRAINING (SST): SST interventions aim to help develop positive study habits and improve test-taking abilities by increasing the individual’s confidence. There are many helpful ways to prepare for exams. Check out our blog post for 6 sure-fire tips for Managing Exam Stress.
If you’re ready to work on Exam Anxiety, why not Contact Us for a tailored approach? Our team members have years of experience working with students and exam stress. Not able to make it to sunny Perth, Australia? Check out our Nimble Noodle course to help students set up good habits for a successful study year (more information below).
got to get into study-mode?...get NIMBLE NOODLE.
Learn ways to prepare better for your exams by getting on top of your studies. In Nimble Noodle, an online course for students where you can learn to use your brain flexibly to stay focused until the end. We focus on a holistic approach to exam performance - academically, psychologically, and physically. Nimble Noodle for students covers:
Great tips on how to boost your study skills
Studying is more than just opening your books and rote-learning the information contained in your textbook, nor just attending classes and summarising what the teacher covers. In Nimble Noodle we cover:
How to set yourself up for a great academic year, semester, or term by planning your studies with good time management.
Understanding how your memory works and how to work with its limitations to boost your performance.
How to read and take notes effectively rather than writing everything you read/hear. Pages and pages of notes do not automatically turn you into an excellent student. You have to engage with your notes and study strategically.
How to be effective when it comes to assignments by taking a strategic approach to planning how to tackle your assignment, how to conduct research, and planning what to write.
HOW TO STAY ON TRACK WITH STUDIES (BURNOUT AND PROCRASTINATION, WE’RE LOOKING AT YOU!)
An academic year can seem really long. A semester may seem less of a stretch, but in reality it means that you have to be able to sustain your performance to make it over many weeks. So how do you stay on track with your studies when there are multiple distractions, fun things to do instead, and not burn out before you get to the end? In Nimble Noodle we’ll look at:
How your mindset can demotivate and derail your best intentions, and how to shift your self talk to help you stay on track with your studies. Feeling motivated to approach your studies, or feeling demotivated and procrastinating on a task, all stem from your mindset and powerful self-talk. We take a deep dive into mindset and how to make it work to your advantage.
How to look after your physical health so that you don’t crash and burn. Think of the classic stressed-out student who sets aside a healthy diet, exercise, and sleep, who instead spends every waking moment studying - how effective will this student be when it comes to the crunch?
How to manage stress, intense emotions, and setbacks so that they don’t derail your studies. Feeling overwhelmed can lead you to check out of your studies, so why not learn to managing distressing emotions so that it’s easier to refocus on your studies?
How to manage your time better and to set up an environment that helps your studies. Learning about your peak times of alertness can boost your studies.
How to think critically about your study progress (meta-learning).
HOW TO PREPARE FOR EXAM DAY(S)
Finally, we cover how to prepare for exam time with specific tips covering:
How to study strategically when it comes to your exam preparation
What to do on exam day
ABOUT THE AUTHORS
Nimble Noodle is brought to you by our Clinical Psychologist Dr Joyce Chong, and Dr Kevin Yong, GP and blogger at eat.move.chill. They’ve worked together over the years to help students get set for their studies and exams, and have put together their best tips that work so you can access them all in the one place.
Joyce has a special interest in learning and memory, having completed her PhD on the link between anxiety and working memory. She also worked for many years with students at University Counselling and Psychological Services, helping them stay on track with their studies through a combination of developing strong study skills, managing moods that get in the way of effective studying, and also developing the right mindset for success.
Kevin is a firm believer in the benefits of a healthy body for wellbeing and the mind. His focus is on helping students look after themselves in ways that support their learning and concentration, and to ensure that they stay well and illness-free for this very significant year of their lives.
As a special thank you to our The Skill Collective readers while we build up our Nimble Noodle course you can ACCESS AN EARLY DISCOUNT ON NIMBLE NOODLE by clicking on this link HERE.
 Huntley, C. (2019). The efficacy of interventions for test-anxious university students: A meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials, Journal of Anxiety Disorders, 63, 36-50. doi:10.1016/j.janxdis.2019.01.007
 von der Embse, N., Jester, D., Roy, D., & Post, J. (2018). Test anxiety effects, predictors, and correlates: A 30-year meta-analytic review. Journal of Affective Disorders, 227, 483-493. doi: 10.1016/j.jad.2017.11.048