Dealing with Exam Anxiety

by a University Lecturer and published author of various books and academic papers
Posted March 2024

This post considers exam anxiety and aims to help students to make sure that anxiety around exams doesn’t stop them from reaching their full potential.

Blog Contents


Very few people enjoy the experience of doing exams. They are high pressure, stressful, and sometimes a lot rides on them. Anyone can get anxious about exams, at any age or stage of education. It’s completely normal to feel some worry. Sometimes, that worry can be useful: it can motivate you to work hard and commit to particular goals. Other times, though, it can be unhelpful and bad for your physical and mental health. We have all been through difficult exams in life, and you are absolutely not unusual if you feel this way.

However, exams are also a part of life – for some professions like accountants and lawyers, they even continue into professional life and well beyond school. Coping with the stress and anxiety you feel around exams is a part of your academic skillset, and like your other skills, it’s something you can actively work on. So you don’t need to panic and think: “I’ll never be good at exams” – even if you know they are a struggle for you right now. This post aims to help you to make sure that anxiety around exams doesn’t stop you from reaching your full potential.

Signs of Exam Anxiety

Signs your exam stress might need addressing can vary. Stress is a normal response in our brains when we feel under pressure – it’s about hormones like adrenaline being released into the bloodstream. We evolved that way because stress helps you be more alert, and better able to respond to danger: the famous ‘fight or flight response’. But that same alertness can be counter-productive when the danger is not a sabre-tooth tiger, but a maths test. You can’t fight an exam, or run from it!

You might just feel quite grumpy, be snappy, or not feel much like doing anything at all. You might find yourself thinking about the exams a lot, or even obsessively worrying about your exam outcomes. That could come with feelings of hopelessness about what happens next, or despair. You might have trouble sleeping, especially if your mind is racing thinking about things that could go wrong. You might feel tense in your body, and have muscle pain, or headaches. You might feel nauseous, have an upset stomach, or get really sweaty.

Some stress is a normal part of life, but if you are experiencing signs of stress and anxiety around exams, there are techniques you can use to help reduce them and limit their impact on your life.

Be Kind to Yourself

Sometimes, stress around exams can be caused by having unrealistic expectations, or by others’ unrealistic expectations. You might experience pressure from your school, friends, or family to perform at a certain level – or even feel there are unspoken expectations based on your grades. That can be a good thing – those people probably want the best for you, and want to see you succeed.

But it’s also not helpful, if you are working at a certain level, to compare yourself to your peers working at a different level. We are all good at some things more than others, and it’s ok not to get the highest grades in every subjects. Talk to your teachers about what level you are working at, and aim for the best outcomes based on your personal situation. Comparing yourself to others is rarely a useful way to manage your stress in life, and nobody is perfect – even if they look that way from the outside sometimes.

If your fear is centred on failure, rather than not getting a specific grade, ask yourself why you feel that way. Firstly, if you have done your school work, and done your best, you’re unlikely to fail. Even if one exam goes badly, that also doesn’t mean all your exams will. If you feel you haven’t worked hard enough, or need better techniques, your teachers can help you – it’s never too late and you are not helpless in that situation. Secondly, even if you aren’t able to pass for any reason, is that the most important thing in your life? You are much more than your grades, and letting them take over your self-image is not healthy for anyone. The goal is to do the best you can, and work with that.

Time Management and Planning

Time management is an important part of coping with the demands of your exams. We talked in a previous post about things like preparing a revision timetable, past papers, and making sure you know when your exams are. Make sure you know when your exams are, how long they are, where they take place, and what tools, if any, you need for them. It’s also important to speak to your teachers well in advance if you need adjustments for any disabilities or differences which affect you in an exam. Depending on your needs, your school, and the exam, that might mean extra time, breaks, tools like computers, or timetable changes.

You might also want to talk to your parents or others you live with about your exam schedule: firstly, this makes them aware of your high-stress periods so they can support you, and secondly, they might be able to reschedule some things like family commitments or chores to help give you more space during your exam period. Sometimes, well-meaning family can also make it harder to find balance during revision and exams: if you can communicate clearly with the people you live with about your schedule, how you are preparing for exams, and what you need, you may be able to make the process smoother. You might just need to explain to your parents that you have a plan, and the plan includes resting and having some fun during your revision and exams – because you want to stay healthy. If you can show them that you have taken the initiative about managing your time, they may find it easier to worry less themselves.

Planning your time isn’t just about being efficient: if you know what’s coming and when, it can help you to fear it less. Some of the time, when we feel anxiety, it’s because we are facing something unknown. The more you know about the exams, the less there is for your brain to worry about. Once you know when and where the exam is, you can even practice visualising yourself in the exam hall, sitting the paper, and doing a good job – then when the day comes around for real, it’s less of a shock and less likely to make you anxious.

Meditation and Grounding

Meditation, or forms of exercise which involve mindfulness and breathing exercises like yoga, are now popular in high-stress workplaces. They can help you with your exam stress, too. Whether you do it at home alone watching a YouTube video, or join a class, these are techniques which have been specifically developed to help you and your body respond to stress in a healthy way. For instance, meditation has both physical and mental impacts: it lowers blood pressure and your heart rate, and can help you learn techniques to calm your own mind and self-regulate when your anxiety notches up. There are lots of different kinds of meditation, and there different types of exercises like yoga, too. So if you try one and you don’t like it, you can always try something different to find a method that works for you personally. You can also make your study environment calmer, and therefore less likely to add to your stress, by working somewhere tidy and quiet if possible. Some people like to listen to classical music, or other instrumental music with a calming tempo, to help them focus.

A word of advice, though – the day before an exam is not a great time to explore these practices for the first time. And they aren’t magic bullets: they are one of many tools which you can build into your life to improve your mental and physical wellbeing, but if you’re having a tough moment right before an exam, they might not be as useful without practice.

Many people who suffer from anxiety find that a ‘grounding’ technique can be particularly useful when they start to feel panic. A panic attack is a severe form of anxiety where, in that moment, you might feel like things are spiralling out of your control – including your body. Something as simple as focusing on your breathing can help you regain a feeling of control. Or, you can try focusing on a solid object like a chair or a table – something which you can physically touch and which literally helps you know that the ground is still there under you. Another technique involves listing something easy and familiar, or counting backwards from 100. Whilst these might help in a difficult moment, remember that if you regularly experience panic attacks, you should seek medical help.


If you’re the kind of person who struggles with self-doubt or ‘imposter syndrome’ – a feeling like you are a fraud and don’t deserve to be where you are, a daily practice of affirmation might help. The idea behind this is that you engage with short, positive statements reminding you that your negative thoughts are just that – negative thoughts. You could put these statements on a wall so you see it each morning, use post it notes, or even say them out loud to yourself as a part of your daily routine. Examples might include something like:

“I am a strong, skilled person, and I can achieve my goals.’


“I have overcome challenges before, and I can overcome new challenges.”

Another version of this is to make a list of all the things you are good at, or that you are aiming for in life, which don’t involve the exams which are making you feel stressed. This can really help put things in perspective.

It may sound silly, but by giving yourself opportunities to say and think positive things, you can help break yourself out of negative mindsets. Shifting your perspective can be really valuable when confronted with a daunting task like a hard exam.

Rest and Enjoy Yourself

Even if you have important exams coming up, you need to rest and make time for the things you enjoy in life. Working too hard for too long is not productive, for a number of reasons. Firstly, if your brain is tired, it isn’t very good at taking on new information. Sleep is a key part of how our brains process knowledge and store it as memories. That’s a big part of why cramming last minute doesn’t work very well. Secondly, if you exhaust yourself before an exam, you’ll probably be pretty tired going into the exam itself, and unlikely to do your best work. Thirdly, whilst exams are important, they are just one aspect of your life. Your overall health and wellbeing depends on other things, too.

During the exam period, try to eat healthily, sleep for a reasonable amount of time each night, and avoid exhausting yourself in other ways. You should ideally avoid caffeine – for instance in energy drinks, tea, or coffee, especially around exam days themselves: caffeine can cause you to be more anxious and affects your sleep. You might also want to avoid a sugary breakfast before an exa

m, as this can cause blood sugar to drop later and interfere with your concentration. We all know, too, that using our phones or other electronic screens before bed is not good for sleep – so try not to doomscroll at night.

Also allow yourself time to enjoy your hobbies, to be outdoors, and to pursue things that aren’t related to exams at all. Doing things you are good at can especially help remind you that not everything is as hard as a tricky exam paper. If you enjoy sport, exercise can be a great way to lower the levels of stress hormones in your body and distract you from your exam worries. Even just a walk outdoors can help a lot: in Japan, the practice of ‘forest bathing’ or ‘shinrin yoku’ involves being in a place with lots of trees and seeking a feeling of calm. This is backed up by some good science, too: trees release chemicals which can help your immune system, which is often negatively affected by stress.

This should go without saying, but self-medicating with alcohol or drugs is not a good strategy, either. Many drugs, and alcohol, make your brain work less well, so they’re not going to help you achieve your potential in an exam. They may also harm your mind and body, and/or be illegal. Unless they have been prescribed by a medical professional based on your needs, relying on pharmaceutical interventions is likely to hide the problem and make it worse, not help.

Get Help

If you are struggling with anxiety or other mental health issues, you don’t have to do it alone. You are not weaker or less good as a student if exams make you feel bad. Your parents or guardians, your teachers, and mental health professionals accessible both within your school and outside it can offer specific advice and support. Sometimes, all you need is someone to listen to your concerns: don’t be afraid to express them to a trusted person. Your friends, especially if they are going through the same stress, can also be very important as a source of support. But remember, just because your friends might seem to be coping better than you on the outside, or aren’t talking about it, that doesn’t mean they aren’t worried too. Everyone responds differently to stress.

A professional might also be able to identify whether any kind of learning difference is impacting your ability to do exams – sometimes exam anxiety stems from undiagnosed challenges of this kind. For example, if you have dyslexia, it might make it harder for you to complete exams, and in turn add to your anxiety. If you think that might be you, a diagnosis can help you get extra support during exams.

In any of these cases, identifying a problem early is a good idea. If you are feeling more and more worried as exams approach, don’t leave it until the last minute to ask for help if you can avoid it. Once they know there is a problem, people can help support you, and if you give those support mechanisms more time to work, they’re more likely to succeed.

If you have a problem during an exam 

During an exam, there will always be people whose job it is to deal with any problems or emergencies that come up. Sometimes, even if we prepare carefully, an exam can get the better of us. If you open the paper and feel worried about the questions, sometimes all you need is to take a moment, take a deep breath, and let yourself realise that you can answer them.

If it’s more serious, though, and you find yourself unable to continue, you need to ask for help. Asking for help during the middle of an exam might be scary, but if you had a physical injury, you would ask for first aid, right? Having a mental health crisis is no different. Speak to the examiner or moderator and let them know what is happening. They should have had training to prepare them for these kinds of situations, and they will know what the policies are for an emergency during an exam. Many adults have had these kinds of experiences, too – for instance in their own exams, or freezing during an important meeting or presentation at work, or being overwhelmed and not performing well during a sporting activity: we have all ‘blanked’ due to stress at some point. They should be understanding if you are struggling.

Many exams can be re-taken, if something doesn’t work the first time: failing or not being able to complete the paper is not the end of the world. The important thing is to address the obstacles that are stopping you from achieving what you want to achieve, and work on it for next time.

Enjoy when it’s over

When exams finish, it can be a bit of an anti-climax. You might be very tired, stressed, and feel like you just want to sleep. That’s fine – you can do that! Try not to dwell on exams after they’re done, either: once you have done your paper, it’s out of your hands. Move on to the next thing, and worry about the outcome when you have your grades: anything else is  unproductive worrying. Exams will never define who you are as a person: most adults think very little about their GCSE or A Level results because they know they have had many other important and worthwhile experiences since then. They are a tool and a step on the path to the life you want to have as an adult.

It can be a good idea to plan something fun for after your exams finish, so you have something to look forward to. In the midst of your revision, or on the day of a hard exam, you will know that there is just a bit more work between you and that holiday, party, or other fun activity. You earned it!