How can I cope with exam stress?

I’m a good student most of the time, go to all lectures and tutes, do the written work but I really stuff up exams. I get really stressed and can’t remember what I am trying to learn and then don’t do so well. I’ve got two exams coming up and I don’t want to stuff up again. What can I do?

Being anxious about exams is a common experience for students, often made worse when you can’t switch off from these anxious thoughts. Some students describe feeling like they are in some kind of a mind block, where one anxious thought leads to another, often attached to physical symptoms like racing heart, dry mouth, sweating excessively and shallow breathing, which in turn re-enforces anxious thoughts.

In order to deal with the anxiety, you could start with breathing exercises every time you tense up by taking a short break and just focussing on your breath for a few minutes, then making it slower and deeper (breathing down to your abdomen). Performing these exercises frequently teaches your body and mind how to relax. Leave a bit of time just before you go to the exam to do your exercise in a quiet place.

Another strategy involves saying “stop” (even aloud if possible) to your anxious, negative thoughts and replacing them with positive messages like reminding yourself of previous successes/ encouragements.

A good counter-balance to anxiety is keeping up with your physical and pleasurable activities in the stressful lead-up period to exams. Remind yourself that your general wellbeing is a necessary ingredient to efficient study and not wasted time.

Check out some of our webinars on managing stress and exam anxiety, as well as our guided relaxation exercises.

If none of the suggested strategies work for you, book an appointment with a counsellor or a medical practitioner.


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