How to overcome exam anxiety

Christine Grove

Do you often think you are going to fail an exam? from www.shutterstock.com

In our five-part series, Making Sense of Exams, we’ll discuss the purpose of exams, whether they can be done online, overcoming exam anxiety, and effective revision techniques.


Do you feel like your mind freezes during exams? Do you find yourself thinking “I really can’t do this”? Does your heart race fast or do you find it hard to breathe during exams?

Most people feel anxious when taking an exam, but research shows that some people are more likely to suffer from exam anxiety than others. So why is this? And what can you do to calm your nerves?

What is exam anxiety?

Exam anxiety is the experience of feeling an intense moment of fear or panic before and/or during an exam or assessment.

There are two types of anxiety:

Students with either high or low anxiety can respond to tests in different ways. But research shows that managing anxiety effectively can actually help with exam performance.

The challenge is to recognise when your anxiety has increased past an optimal level so that it starts to impact your ability to complete the exam - this is a high level of anxiety.

Some physical responses of high anxiety include a speeding heart, damp hands, shortness or rapid breath, and feeling queasy.

The physical response is usually experienced in high levels of anxiety when the “fight or flight” response is triggered. This is how our bodies respond to a perceived threat – and while uncomfortable, it is not harmful.

When anxiety is (and isn’t) useful

Anxiety can be useful in certain situations - for example, if you are in danger ( jumping out of the way of a car). It can also help to increase our attention to the threatening event and improve our response.

But it is not so helpful when the threat we are faced with is cognitive, like an exam.

The thoughts involved in exam anxiety usually include negative thinking about performance (also known as worry) and/or the physical reaction to thinking about the upcoming exam: “I’m going to fail”, “I quit”, “My heart is leaping out of my chest and I can’t focus.”

Impact of high anxiety on performance

Research has shown that people who experience high levels of anxiety in exams can also see their performance decline in evaluation situations.

These people tend to perceive exams as threatening and respond with intense emotional responses, making it difficult to focus on the task at hand.

Assessment situations also evoke worry responses that interfere with effective performance on cognitive and intellectual tasks. This then impacts on the person’s chance of performing their best on the exam.

Exam anxiety may also interfere with your ability to show your academic and cognitive capabilities.

So, how can I cool my exam nerves?

If you identify high anxiety in yourself, you can learn ways to manage it so that it doesn’t take over your exam performance.

The skills you find most helpful in managing your exam anxiety will vary depending on what triggers may be contributing to your high levels of anxiety.

If students experience high levels of anxiety before an exam, they should engage in self-care strategies during this time by keeping an eye on sleeping through the night, nutrition, exercise, and implementing a few relaxation routines.

Students sometimes forget these small steps as they can feel consumed by the fear of the exam.

Relaxation training

Psychologists and well-being teams at school have a range of techniques to help manage test anxiety – and can also recommend ways to improve your study skills.

The goals of the techniques are to help students understand the nature of their anxiety so that they can cope more effectively with upcoming evaluations.

This may include behavioural intervention that aims to teach relaxation training like mindfulness.

Mindfulness is where a student tries to focus on the present moment, while calmly acknowledging and accepting their anxious feelings, thoughts, and physical reactions.

Relaxation training can be used alongside a process of systematic desensitisation – this is where a person visualises a scene while completely relaxed, and the mental image evokes some of the feelings of the real scene.

The idea is that if you learn to relax while visualising yourself taking the exam, you can also learn to be relaxed while actually taking the exam.

Support through special consideration

Some students who experience high levels of anxiety (intense panic or fear about an exam that results in them being unable to do the test) can access additional support through special consideration at their school.

This varies based on the individual needs of the student. But some students may need access to a separate room to complete exams, regular breaks during the exam or more time.

To access this type of consideration, get in touch with your school’s wellbeing team or a psychologist (see resources below) to help develop an individualised plan for you during the exam season.

Learning to work through your exam anxiety can have a number of positive effects including:

Tips for coping with exam anxiety

When getting ready for exams try to:

Useful links and resources

You can also take a look at this exam anxiety booklet which aims to help you and your parents better understand exam anxiety.

You can read the booklet to help identify coping strategies that may help address your anxiety. Also, your parents could read this booklet with you and participate in identifying coping strategies.

If you would like to talk to someone right now about your exam anxiety and ask a few questions about individual support, contact (available 24/7):

Read more from the series.

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Christine Grove does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.

Monash University provides funding as a founding partner of The Conversation AU.

Victoria State Government provides funding as a strategic partner of The Conversation AU.