What is exam stress and how to overcome it

What causes exam stress?

Many people experience exam stress and get very anxious when embarking on exams. Stress can be experienced in many ways and may lead to the following symptoms:

exam stress
  • Difficulty getting to sleep or difficulty waking up in the morning
  • A feeling of panic and not being able to concentrate
  • Constant tiredness
  • Unexplained aches and pains
  • Poor appetite
  • Increased anxiety and irritability
  • Increased heart rate
  • Migraines/headaches

In extreme cases people may panic when they are in examination room, when it all gets too much.

Anxiety is experienced more by those students who have a sense of being powerless i.e. believing that their academic results are controlled by luck or outside forces. For example, they may feel that the result is down to whether they are sitting in their preferred location in the exam hall, if they have remembered their favourite pen or how the examination marker is feeling on the day.

Those students who believe that they are in control of situations and have appropriate coping skills, are less stressed (Abouserie, 1994).


How can you overcome exam stress?

Building a sense of power and control can be achieved by reflecting on your life experiences in a helpful way. By this, I mean, realising what skills, abilities and qualities the experience shows you have. In addition, just saying positive things to yourself about yourself, is effective. Both these actions help to build a sense of self worth which means that you start to believe in your own capabilities and don’t rely on external factors.

How stressed are you?

Noticing where you are on a stress meter is also useful. As soon as you feel yourself moving through the “moderate” zone towards “high” it is important to distract yourself and focus on something totally different. This will allow your thoughts to calm down.

Is it helpful?

Another tactic is to stop and reflect on your thinking – is it helpful or unhelpful? If it’s unhelpful, gain perspective and change it to more positive, constructive thoughts. For example, focus on what revision you have completed and not what you haven’t got round ot – worrying about that will only build your exam stress. Be realistic in your planning and expectations with regard to revision. Setting unrealistic targets and not meeting them will make you feel like you are failing, which is likely make you worry more.