Understanding exam anxiety and ways to reduce it

If you are someone who struggles with exam anxiety, know that you aren’t alone. There are things that you can do to try and alleviate this, without any extra effort. Read on for more information.

Some levels of stress are normal, and they do serve a purpose. Stress can improve your work performance, think more quickly and more efficiently. That being said, sometimes stress can turn into anxiety, which is overwhelming. These high levels of stress and anxiety have detrimental effects on both your mental health and your performance.

The effects

Simply being aware of what is causing your anxiety can help to lessen the effects. Anxiety can cause patchy sleep or completely sleepless nights. It can increase your irritability or leave you with a short temper. You may also feel nauseous or have butterflies in your stomach. Your appetite may be significantly reduced; or you may find yourself comfort-eating to excess. Lastly, you may find yourself indulging in vices more, such as smoking or drinking. If you’re unsure whether you experience anxiety, then this small list should help you draw some similarities.

The causes

Try to take some time to reflect on what could be causing your anxiety. Once you address the causes, it puts you in a better position to treat it. In terms of exam anxiety, it could be linked to a few different triggers:

  • Are you simply a bit of a worrier?
  • Do you already have a tendency to be anxious?
  • Are you unprepared for the exam?
  • Have you had previous poor experiences in exam situations?
  • Are you a perfectionist?
  • Do you beat yourself up if anything less than top marks signals a failure to you?
  • Do you feel unwell, or are you taking any medication with side effects of anxiety?

For example, if you’re someone that tends to be a bit of a perfectionist, you might experience higher levels of exam anxiety. This often means you set yourself up for failure or disappointment, due to the fear of never feeling “good enough”.

Again, these are not the only causes, but they are the most common. Getting to the root cause will help you better understand your triggers and how to prevent them.

Reducing the anxiety

Most of the time, the key to reducing exam anxiety is preparedness. Make an early start on your revision; starting six weeks before the examination is usually recommended. But this can change depending on where you feel you are in your studies and the study level. Take enough time to do yourself justice.

Remember that revision is about revisiting things you have previously learnt, not teaching yourself a new topic. If you feel you are really behind, you could employ the help of a tutor. Let’s say you struggle with English and you’re clueless as to where to begin in your revision, then an English tutor would be highly advisable.

Before the exams

Most people will experience an increase in anxiety the closer the exam gets. They often start off with lower levels that can be managed more easily but build during the lead up to the exam itself. These feelings can be managed, and planning is often really helpful in doing so.

Start by planning your revision; make sure you are setting aside enough time to revise every day. Sort through your notes, essays, mock papers and reading to focus on the essential material. Your notes can be invaluable; try to re-read, re-structure and condense them. Look up mock papers and plan answer outlines to the questions. Are there any questions that come up a lot that may be rephrased and included this year? Do not try and sit there revising for too long in one go; your concentration will begin to wane, and it is no longer effective.

Studying constantly will make you exhausted, and you may even feel burnt out – long before you even get the chance to sit the exam. Divide your free time into thirds and make sure you are revising for at least two of those thirds. Make sure that you have at least one day off from revision a week. Try not to neglect your other activities, hobbies, or friends; it needs to be a balance between studying and leisure. Take regular breaks for exercise to help keep your brain active and stop it from feeling fatigued. Remember to avoid relying on supplements or other things that promise you boundless energy.

Again, try not to neglect your self-care. This can be as simple as getting enough rest or eating healthy. Brains need energy and rest. So make sure to eat nutritious, high-quality foods. Don’t forget drinks; make sure that you are drinking plenty of water. A dehydrated brain is not effective. After you are done revising for the day, make sure that you wind down before going to bed. This gets you into a better relaxation state, rather than just climbing into bed.

The night before

Sometimes you can feel incredibly calm during the revision period, but then panic sets in the night before. The night before your exam is crucial; you need to relax and get enough sleep if you want to function properly during your exam. Learning relaxation methods such as meditation is always a good practice to pick up; but if you learn them in advance. Then you can use them if you start to panic or even during the exam if your mind goes blank.

Humour can be an excellent tool to distract yourself as it can help you to beat the negative thoughts. Do not revise the night before the exam, it will increase your anxiety. Instead, take a walk or have a bath and focus on getting enough rest.

Even if you feel sick, make sure that you eat something. It doesn’t have to be a full meal, it can be something small just to keep your blood-sugar stable. For example, bread, crackers, or cereal are known to settle the stomach.

Another important thing is to pack your bag for the next day. Do you have everything you need for the exam? Do you know where you need to go for it and what time you need to be there? Knowing that you are prepared and ready can help to reduce the anxiety that you are feeling.

During the exam

Maybe you have been fine the whole time, and you have not felt any heightened stress or anxiety. Then you walk into the exam hall, and it rushes over you. Firstly, make sure that you do everything to keep you physically comfortable. Have you been to the toilet? Are you too hot or too cold? If so, adjust your clothing. Take some deep breaths and try to let the panic subside. It is only after this that you should begin to look at your exam.

Try to bear in mind that most people will be feeling similarly to you; it is natural. So try to put it out of your head and concentrate on just doing your best. Read through all the instructions and questions carefully, don’t rush through it. If the questions require longer answers or even essay answers, make sure that you spend a couple of minutes planning your thoughts first. This can help your answer to flow, and often they have more fluency. If you encounter any questions that you can’t answer straight away, move on to one that you can, then return to these at the end.

In conclusion

It is completely normal to experience exam anxiety. The best thing that you can do is look after yourself first. Your mental health is what matters the most. Planning and preparing are the best tools that you can have in your arsenal to help you combat those feelings. Good luck!

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