Cripping assessment anxiety!

What are some “emergency” strategies for coping with sudden and crippling anxiety or panic during an important exam or presentation when there is no time to use breathing techniques?

Exam situations and oral presentations are very common sources of anxiety for students. During any situation where you are experiencing a sudden burst of anxiety, your body goes into overdrive – you may notice yourself breathing more quickly and becoming short of breath, you may begin to sweat more, feel like you are going ‘blank’ and have difficulty remembering what you were planning to say. Whatever your particular exam stress reaction, we do know that generally it is a combination of thoughts and feelings that contributes to our anxiety response, and this can occur within a very short time frame, and sometimes without us being fully aware of it. The following tips might be useful in learning ways to cope with anxiety.

1. Although you may not have time to do a full 20 minute breathing technique (though these are helpful to do prior to your exam), there are some brief strategies which you can learn to use and practice in your exam or presentation. For example, when you begin to feel panic rising, remember to breathe! Part of the problem with panic is that our breathing gets very short and shallow, and our brain then interprets this as ‘something wrong’, which of course makes us panic even more! Taking a couple of moments to take a deep breath in, and a slightly longer breath out, can help the body to calm down at times of stress, and also can help to focus our attention on the task at hand. Click here to read the Calming Technique.

2. Be aware of any of your negative self-talk. For example; thoughts such as, ‘I can’t do this’, or, ‘I’m going to fail’, can increase anxiety and panic. Try replacing negative thoughts with calming and encouraging thoughts, such as; ‘This is just anxiety, it can’t harm me’, ‘This too will pass’, ‘Relax – everything will be OK’, and ‘Everyone in my class is in the same boat’. By thinking more positively our confidence to engage in the task is boosted and we feel better about our abilities to complete the exam or presentation.

3. Before the exam, it is important to feel adequately prepared by knowing your subject. Be mindful of getting enough sleep and nutritious food – give your brain its best chance. Expect and accept you’ll be nervous thereby not getting nervous about being nervous! Do your Breathing Techniques on the way to the exam or arrive with enough time to do them there, and have realistic, positive self-talk. Taking a few minutes in the exam to do some slow deep breathing is well worth the time it taken to do it.

4. Click here, here and here for more information about preparing for exams.

5. If you find that you’re frequently stressed, consider practicing relaxation on a daily basis. The aim of these techniques is to bring down your overall anxiety level. The Counselling Service webpage has a range of applied relaxation and breathing audio tracks you can download and listen to. Practicing mindfulness can also assist you to check in and let go of negative emotions. Exercise can be a useful way of relaxing for some people. Counselling and Psychological Services also regularly runs workshops throughout semester on a variety of topics including stress management, so check out our website for updates.

Best of luck with your exams!


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