|Fighting exam stress and panic
“The day before the exam I spent the whole time being sick and feeling nervous. I just remember going into the exam, turning over the exam paper and my head going completely blank”
Sitting exams is nearly always stressful. You might feel worried because you’re afraid you’re not good enough, that there are too many demands on you all at once, that you haven’t worked hard enough or that you’ll let others down. These worries might be particularly strong if you have been out of education and haven’t sat an exam for a long time. This guide has been put together to help you understand what exam stress and anxiety is and how you can deal with it before and during your exams.
What is stress and anxiety?
Stress is associated with events or situations that have potential to upset a person’s sense of well-being. Stress responses vary from person to person but typical symptoms include headaches, muscle pains, changes in appetite and sleep patterns and nausea. The terms ‘stress’ and ‘anxiety’ are often taken to mean the same thing, although anxiety is often considered to be short-term, whereas stress can last for weeks, months, or longer. In the lead up to exams, or on the day of an exam, it is common to feel anxious and experience some of the above symptoms.
What is a panic attack?
Panic attacks tend to happen very suddenly and involve a fairly short period of overwhelming anxiety. They often happen without warning, have no obvious triggers and can even happen in seemingly harmless situations. Panic attacks can range from 15 seconds to 30 minutes and symptoms include a racing heart rate, difficulties breathing, nausea, shaking and chest pains. Panic attacks can be terrifying as you may feel a complete loss of control and wonder what’s happening to you. Some students experience panic attacks before or even during exams. If you suffer from panic attacks during exam periods, it is important that you talk to your doctor and develop strategies to cope with them. Please read on for more advice.
What can I do to avoid this happening before or during an exam?
*Weeks before the exam(s)*
Get organised: One of the best ways to avoid exam related stress is to be prepared. You will avoid high levels of anxiety if you can go into the exam feeling confident that you know your stuff. This means that you should think about how much time you have before your exams and plan very carefully how you will spend that time. Blank revision timetables can be useful to help you plan your time and you can find these on the ADT Study Pal site in the ‘Time management’ section. It is also very important to think about how you will revise. Reading a text book or your lecture notes is not enough for you to recall information under exam conditions. Please read the guide ‘How to revise effectively’ in the ADT Study Pal ‘Revision techniques’ section for advice in this area.
*Days before the exam(s)*
Come up with a strategy for the exam, e.g. work out how much time you will spend on each section of the exam paper according to the marks available and visualise yourself doing it. Decide what section you will tackle first and how you will approach it. For example, how will you approach multiple choice questions (e.g. rule out all the wrong answers before deciding on the right one) and essay questions (e.g. write a structure or mind map for answering the question before launching into writing)?
Visit the exam hall so that you know how the room will look, what to expect and where to go on the day. This might sound silly but many students have been known to have anxiety attacks during exams because the formality and enormity of the situation gets to them. If you can visualise where the exam will take place, this is less likely to happen.
Make a list of all the things that you need to take with you to the exam - you don’t want to trigger anxiety before you start because you’ve forgotten your matric card!
Plan how you will spend your time in the hours before the exam, e.g. what will you eat, what time will you leave, how will you get there?
Talk positively to yourself – You must not let negative thoughts get the better of you as they will only lead to anxiety, so replace any negative thoughts (e.g. I don’t have what it takes to pass this exam) with positive ones (e.g. Of course I can do this, I wouldn’t have been accepted on the course if I couldn’t and I am going to give this my best shot). This is really important, especially the day before the exam when doubt can start to creep in.
*Day of the exam*
Stick to the plan you created - e.g. get up when you had planned, eat what you had planned, gather everything you need according to your list and leave exactly when you had planned.
Expect to feel some nervousness - It is well known that people perform better in exam situations with some anxiety (although too much anxiety will have a detrimental effect on performance) rather than no anxiety. This is your body’s way of preparing you to do your best and those feelings of nervousness will sharpen your focus and energy.
Make sure that you eat enough - You don’t want to be lacking energy during the exam so have a good breakfast or lunch, even if you feel nauseous and would prefer not to eat.
Get there early and continue to be positive – Waiting to go into the exam can be a nerve-racking time. Continue to give yourself those positive messages and rehearse the exam strategy that you have planned. Stay away from other students who might scaremonger or exacerbate your nerves.
*During the exam*
Before opening the exam paper, try to relax – take a deep breath and remind yourself that you are ready to give it your best shot.
Stick 100% to your plan - It is easy to let the formality of the situation get to you and to forget your exam strategy, so work hard to follow the plan that you had set; answer each section in the order you had planned and approach each question using the strategy you had planned. Most importantly, keep your eye on the clock; if you had planned to spend 30 minutes on section A, then only allow yourself 30 minutes. If you spend too long on one section of the exam you will risk your performance in the other section(s).
Deal with panic – If the worst happens and panic sets in, you’ll need to take some time to get yourself back in the right frame of mind. Stop what you are doing and either shut your eyes or leave the room temporarily if you have to. Practise deep breathing to bring your anxiety levels back down and try to think positively, even if you don’t know how to answer the questions. All is not lost; once you calm yourself down you will be in a better position to answer the questions and what seemed impossible 10 minutes ago might now seem achievable.
Remember that YOU are in control - If you do experience a panic attack or high levels of anxiety, don’t give into it. Although it feels as if you can’t control a panic attack, it is within your power to fight what’s happening.
*After the exam*
Reflect but don’t get caught up in comparing your answers with those of your classmates - While it is important to reflect on how your strategy went and what adjustments you might make for your next exam, once the exam is over you should move on and focus on your next exam. If you go through your answers with others, you are likely to discover little mistakes that you may have made or points that you forgot to add. This will only knock your confidence for the next exam and leave you feeling disappointed.